`No priest state here' in luminous white paint. They had to tear themselves away

In The Park, a papal short story by Evelyn ConlonPope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 provokes a group of dissenters to protest

Pope John Paul II  greets the congregation in the Phoenix Park in 1979

Pope John Paul II greets the congregation in the Phoenix Park in 1979

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Apparently my blood pressure is the same as everyone else’s, that is, just below boiling point. The fat which, during the last few years, had wrapped itself like a tight hug around my arse, has begun to disappear. Where does fat go when it falls off people? Are there chunks of it floating around the air in the exact spot where people have got thin, and where is the exact spot, and do people breathe it in and does it damage their lungs? My nerves are no worse than they ever were, and I sleep well. These things surprise me but they don’t surprise Brigid. Nothing surprises her, that’s why I love her, and her eyes are grey.

Brigid was going through a bad time, doing her best to get through each day without making an ass of herself. Her boyfriend (she would call him a lover, because she has confidence like that) was away. Again. But this time there was an eeriness about his absence, an insistence, that seemed to be trying to tell her something. She was finding it difficult to put her days in, days based on promises, particularly since, as she had begun to admit to herself, the promises had never actually been put into words and said. She had a notch up from a middling job in the corporation and the sort of car that a woman like her can afford in a country which, eleven years later, was to miss the point completely and interview the staple diet of men on the night that Mary Robinson was elected president. She was driving home in this car wondering, and trying not to, if there would be a letter from him when she got there. More of those flags had appeared. This area had been coming down with flags for the past week. New ones sprouted every evening as if there had been multiple births all day long when people who had work were at it. A local festival she presumed, a very spready local festival by the looks of it.

There was a long letter from him that said nothing but wished she was there, which was something. She bit the inside of her lip, wondering again, until it bled. She walked around her flat in a disarrayed fashion, picking things up and putting them down somewhere else. Sheena rang her and asked her if they wanted to go out to dinner tonight.

‘It’s for Macartan McElwaine, he’s emigrating next week, lucky divil.’

‘There’s no we, only me,’ she said.

‘Ah, is Diarmuid away again? Well, come yourself.’

Because something is better than nothing, she went. She took the poor-route bus into town, the quickest journey, the one that makes no effort to avoid the desolate patches. She tried not to hear the tightly packed sounds of poverty. Not tonight.

‘Your perm’s still in.’

‘It’d need to be. I only got it done a month next Thursday.’

The restaurant was perfect. It could dismiss the outside world in a matter of seconds. It had the right consistency – ordinary enough to be relaxing, slightly exotic, so Brigid could be interested, a little conservative, so she could count herself exotic in contrast. This hanging between realities made her dizzy with satisfaction.

The others came together. There was Jacinta, a long-term student who always had money from somewhere and who was more used to spending it in pubs than in restaurants; Sheena, an indifferent clerk in the Norwich Union Insurance Corporation, a dedicated northerner whose mind was sharp as razors; Macartan, dreamy and absent always, but even more so tonight because he was already drinking fast drinks in Manhattan; and Padhraig Copeland, whose father, a Connemara Gaeilgeoir, had married a Basque woman, who sometimes spoke Spanish with an overlay of longing.

They fussed and hugged and sat down and ordered wine and made plenty of noise. They were of the runaway generation. Brigid too. There were no family heirlooms, even cheap ones, in their sitting rooms, because none of them had been forgiven, not yet anyway. Perhaps later they would be, when the death of a parent might force reconciliations on the one left behind. As teenagers they had bitten and sniggered at everything, and when they got to be twenty they didn’t have to swallow their words because things were better then.

Brigid liked staring at people. She was mesmerised by their hair, their faces, their clothes. She could see sloppy sewing through an overcoat. Looking at these people, what could she see? Jacinta never had to seek first attention because she had carrot-magenta hair. Since the sixties, when it was first allowed that red could be matched with pink, or other reds, or any colour, Jacinta had started wearing shocking blood lipstick. She wore it still, even though the time had not yet come around again when thinking women could paint themselves. Padhraig Copeland was far too good-looking – there should be a law against anyone having such a perfect face and mouth. No one ever noticed what he was wearing. Macartan McElwaine had a startled face, a crooked nose, and hair so straight it looked wet. Sheena was so puny she nearly had no face at all; therefore her voice came always as a surprise, a big deep thing that had its way perfectly curved around difficult ideas. She had fed her intelligence well. Brigid would have a good night after all.

Sheena was concerned about the impending visit of the pope to Ireland. ‘It will knock us back years,’ she said.

So that’s what all the flags were for. Brigid wondered to herself where the people had got them. Had they had them all the time in boxes, away with the Christmas decorations, waiting in case the pope ever did come to Ireland? Or was there a factory somewhere spewing them out of machines at a rate of knots? Or did the women sew them up at night in their individual homes and pretend that they had had them all along?

‘Look how much damage he particularly of all the popes has done, in how many years? How long has he been pope now?’

Jacinta remembered. Exactly. Because she was picked out of a crowd on the night of a Reclaim the Night march in Dublin by a TV personality and asked if she would come on his programme and say how she could defend not letting men go on the march in support of the women’s demand that they should be able to walk safely down the streets at any time, day or night, without men. Well, that’s not the way the tv personality put it. She said yes. When she got there her knees were knocking together with fright and she had forgotten that television was in colour so her clothes were all wrong (how could she have thought that, her and her shocking blood lipstick?). But she was saved, because the first Polish pope ever had just been chosen and Today Tonight had spent all evening scouring Dublin for a Polish priest. By the time they got one, all the Polish priests were paralytic on vodka. So there he was, his English not the best in the first place, slurring his way through his interview. In comparison to him, Jacinta sounded like a professional.

Sheena was so concerned at the assumption that we all wanted the pope here she said that something should be done about it. ‘We should do something,’ she said.

And that led to a long discussion about what they would do, what they couldn’t do, what they could do and what they dared to do.

And so by the end of the meal they had decided to paint slogans, so that people would know there was some opposition in the country. They believed that to be important. Nothing too drastic like ‘Fuck the Pope’, because that could be taken up the wrong way, twice. Nothing too obscure, because people would just knit their eyebrows and not understand. Something simple like ‘No Priest State Here’. They would do it on the road from Maynooth to Dublin.

‘Maynooth,’ Macartan said dreamily, turning it on his tongue as a child would repeat a word to itself, knowing that it meant something but not knowing what. ‘Maynooth, where priests are made.’

Brigid was given the job of driving down and up to Maynooth once or twice over the next few days to calculate how many special branch cars were cruising the route. ‘Branch cars! How will I know them?’

‘You’ll feel them on the back of your neck,’ Sheena said.

During the week, Brigid dreamt that she was a bird flying into people’s kitchens, into canteens, on to building sites, switching the bloody radios off as they built up cosy pictures of the wonderful preparations for the wonderful man, the way a radio voice can.

The night came, the night before he was to come. Brigid felt nervous in an alert way, pleased that they were doing at least some little thing. She had plenty of petrol, oil and water in the car. She had cleaned it while she was at it. The tins of paint were in the boot. She was clean herself, spruced up in a pair of jeans that had zips where no zips where needed, a royal blue, light jumper, a white shirt collar peeping up around the neck.

They had decided to leave her flat after midnight. The later they painted the slogans, the more chance they would remain unnoticed until morning, when people would see them on their way to work and be outraged or smile gleefully with relief. It was a long evening. At twelve o’clock or thereabouts Sheena and Macartan arrived. By half past twelve it was obvious that Jacinta and Padhraig had had second thoughts and were not in favour of pursuing a wildcat decision taken in a restaurant when there had been plenty of wine drunk, all because Macartan was emigrating – oh yes! leaving the place, but brave enough to do one last thing for the oul’ sod before he abandoned it altogether, easy for him. And as for Sheena, she’d think better of it when she remembered her job; and as for Brigid, she’d never.

So Macartan, Sheena and Brigid set out and drove through the early autumn night. Sometimes they checked to see if Brigid’s calculations of the branch cars were correct – every eight minutes, every five minutes, that’s not one, oh, it is, it is, I can feel it – but mostly they behaved as if they were out on a mid-afternoon Sunday drive.

The first one was the hardest. They reached the spot that Brigid had picked out before they had decided who would do it. They shouted at each other and jumped around in their seats as if a flea had bitten them. But they calmed down and decided that Sheena and Macartan would do the first ones in rota while Brigid sat at the wheel and started the car up again when they got to the second last e. If they were getting on well, she could have a go when they got to a quieter spot.

No priest state here in luminous white paint, lucid in the dark, as if it had been there for all time. They had to tear themselves away

Ok, here goes. No priest state here in luminous white paint, lucid in the dark, as if it had been there for all time. They had to tear themselves away. They could have stood around for hours chatting, taking the odd, long, admiring look at it, remarking on how well the letters were done, smelling the paint, watching the moon watching it. The second one, a mile from Maynooth, lacked originality, didn’t look as pleasing, but maybe that was because of the bad background wall, which didn’t show the letters up terribly well. The straight stretch of characterless road took away from it too. Still, it was done. And a third. By now the rhythm was flawless – they had the paint and brush and painters out and in again in one minute.

They were concentrating so hard on the fourth, enjoying themselves so much, making the letters flourish more, that they didn’t hear the car coming until it had rounded the corner ahead of them. Quick as a flash, Brigid switched on the engine and moved forward. The driver would think he had only imagined that the car had been stopped. Macartan and Sheena jumped across the hedge, scratching their legs on thorns. Sheena got stung by a nettle. They sat in the ditch listening to their hearts drumming one long beat in their ears. Brigid drove around the corner, switched off the engine, listened, and when no sound came, she reversed back to the spot. While the two were extricating themselves from the ditch and getting into the car, Brigid, bold as brass, finished off the here.

‘Phew! If that had happened with our first one, we would have scarpered home.’

Because of the fright, they turned left at Lucan and took the Strawberry Beds road. ‘Just as good for commuters in the morning and far safer for this business and more beautiful anyway,’ they consoled each other with something near love, born from the fear, that was rising up in their voices. They looked at the road, its tall trees crowded together in places, gossiping, its houses perched dangerously on the edge of steep hills, leaning over to hear. Brigid’s mother had walked dogs along this road once, when she worked as a doctor’s housekeeper. The dogs were well fed. Had Brigid’s mother ever wondered at the beauty? Was she asleep at this moment, having a peculiar dream about the time she worked in Dublin for that doctor?

The drive was so pleasant it was hard to remember that they had stops to make. Did Brigid’s car stop at the very places where her mother had taken a rest with the dogs, listened to the river whispering and making music? Who knows? She couldn’t quite remember how many they had done on the Beds road, five at least - she had got to do two herself. The one that stretched across the road, that’s the one she liked best, it was under a thick black tree and the re ran into the roadside, staining the grass as it broke up. It was that grass you can whistle on if you cup it properly between your hand and lips.

They drove homewards, talking louder now, laughing a lot at nothing, relief beginning to take them over. They drove up Oxmantown Road, down the North Circular, left at Phibsboro, getting further away, getting nearer a door they could close behind them.

For some reason, they couldn’t let it go, this night-time artistry, they stopped to do one last one opposite the gates of Glasnevin Cemetery. Funny, that was the one that stayed the longest. A Garda car passed them as they drove off.

‘Shit, we nearly got caught,’ Macartan said.

‘Nearly pregnant never did anyone any harm,’ Sheena said.

When they got to Brigid’s flat they were ravenous. Macartan and Sheena checked the car for stray splashes of paint, then washed the brushes. Brigid made fried egg, tomato and mushrooms on toast. Macartan stayed the night.

In the morning they switched stations on the radio. One news bulletin mentioned that some vandals had daubed a protest slogan against the pope’s visit.

‘A slogan, only one, is that so?’ Brigid said sleepily as she fiddled with the tuner. ‘The pope this, the pope that, and the pope the other,’ she muttered and switched it off.

By the time they got up, the country was in full swing, children bathed and dressed already, if they were travelling far to the park, cars washed, minds battened down, bus tickets secured and picnics packed. People who lived in the city were out buying their plastic chairs. Hawkers were converging on the park. The last stones of the park’s inconvenient walls were being tipped into the dump - they had to go to make room for all the cars, guards, priests, mothers, bankers, a few radicals who had decided to make a fortune selling periscopes, councillors, fathers, poets, and musicians who had finely tuned themselves to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Those who thought otherwise, were, simply, invisible for the day. By nine o’clock in the morning no amount of floodlights could have picked them out. (It took a certain kind of flash violence to make so many disappear. There are bruises left. There are sounds of strangling. But there you go . . . choking sounds, well, that’s only to be expected, it couldn’t be avoided . . .)

Brigid’s doorbell rang. She went to it slowly because she was feeling the effects of erasure, and the small gurgling of anger in the pit of her stomach was not enough antidote. She opened the door to her smiling brother and his careful girlfriend, her cousins and their friends. They had come early so as to get a good view and to buy some of those chairs if there were any left and they would park their cars here if she didn’t mind.

‘We thought we’d get our tea here as I’m sure there’s no place open,’ her brother said, moving into the hallway.

Brigid felt as if they would crush her if she didn’t step aside. She backed into the kitchen. The last one closed the door behind him. They were standing now around Diarmuid’s packed luggage. She hated them doing that. That was all she had of him – as long as his belongings were packed in boxes here, here in her room, there was hope. If these pope visitors hung around his things for long, he might never come back. Look at that big ignorant mouth leaning his dirty arse on Diarmuid’s stereo. Now that she had woken a little, flashes of anger were skittering through her, shaking her up and strengthening her legs.

She said, ‘I’m not making tea for anyone on their way to see the pope.’

They all laughed.

‘I’m not,’ she said.

They laughed again.

‘No really,’ she said, as the laugh petered out.

Her brother said, ‘You were always great crack. I was just saying that recently. We miss your crack in Mullingar, we could be doing with it especially on a Monday morning. Right, who wants tea, who wants coffee?’

Brigid went to the door, opened it, and said, ‘I’m serious. No one on their way to the park is welcome here. The whole country is at your disposal today, so why are you bothering me? I’ll have enough trouble all day keeping that creep out of my mind without having to feed his followers on their way . . . Enough said, I won’t insult you, just get your tea and your posters and your rosary beads somewhere else.’

They did leave. Well, what else could they do? Their hearts winced at the only blow struck against a believer that day. How well it had to be them! Brigid couldn’t believe they had actually gone. The triumph left no taste of ashes in her mouth. She said ‘Whoopee’ and went back to bed with Macartan, where she curled her bare body as close to his as possible, merging her chest into his so their hearts might beat together. He wasn’t Diarmuid but he was here.

Brigid lifted the nearest black garment to hand, which happened to be a nightdress, attached it firmly to her window, and got back into bed again, trying to shut out the noises of belligerent piety

A few hours later they heard a cheer go up from the street. Her neighbours were all hanging out upstairs windows, waving yellow and white flags at a speck in the sky that must be your man’s helicopter. Brigid lifted the nearest black garment to hand, which happened to be a nightdress, attached it firmly to her window, and got back into bed again, trying to shut out the noises of belligerent piety.

Mass was on in the park by now, wasn’t it? The pope had already told the people in icy sharp tones what they must not do, and nor must you, and you must not, and also . . .

At half past eleven she and Macartan decided to go to Newgrange, the most pagan place they could think of. They drove alone along roads that wove through north County Dublin townlands, roads that skirted the pope’s intended route to Drogheda, meeting the odd branch car, the occupants of which pinned eyes on them - what could those two people be doing? Where could they possibly be going? Mass was on in the park by now, wasn’t it? The pope had already told the people in icy sharp tones what they must not do, and nor must you, and you must not, and also . . .

It would take the people years to recover from the things being said in such a way on such a day. As a million and more genuflected, creaking their knees within a quarter of a second of each other, Macartan put his feet up on the dashboard and sighed the way some of us do when making love has satisfied us beyond what we think we deserve. The pope raised the host, the people bowed their heads, Brigid wondered if that was her period starting now. The people filed in straight lines to get communion, some shuffling, some stamping, as they edged their way confidently towards heaven. Brigid shivered in a flash of cold.

People had started opening their flasks in the park by the time Macartan and Brigid reached the gate. closed due to the pope’s visit. They said nothing, just caught each other’s hands tight and started looking for an opening in the hedge. They climbed through a slit in the ditch and jumped onto the hard ground. Macartan felt as if his hip bones had been pushed up to his ribs with the impact.

The people sang and swayed: ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands.’ (Eleven years later, when some of the poison was leaving, a few people sang ‘She’s got the whole world in her hands’ to Mary Robinson as she drove through the park gates. They giggled low down, knowing where they’d heard it last.) Macartan and Brigid reached the stone wall. Brigid caught Macartan’s face and stuck her tongue down his throat. Across the city they had just left, odd souls longed for the comfort of a warm body, the big crook of an arm to bury their faces in, a chest to lie on, a mouth to kiss, anything to take their minds off it.

Brigid and Macartan went into town that night to have a drink. It was the worst thing they could have done for their hearts, because they met too many people who had gone to the park, people they expected more from, were surprised at, and there was a strange sound or was it a smell lurking in the shadows. The streets were full of rubbish, as if an army had trampled through today and left a wash after it. If that was so, Brigid and Macartan were swimming precariously on the edge of it, being watched by the backs of the people on deck. They met Padhraig and Jacinta, who were now furious with themselves for not having gone painting. They had spent the day sitting on a bed together, but they didn’t get into it because Padhraig was gay, much to Jacinta’s disappointment, not always, but on this day! They waved home-made flags at the screen and shouted, ‘Up the pole. Up the pole.’

They all had a drink. The four of them whispered together, hoping to draw some consolation from each other, but it didn’t feel enough.

At the airport, Sheena, Brigid, Padhraig and Jacinta hung around while Macartan’s parents went through the emotions. Macartan’s mother was furious with grief. She would wait six months or more before sending him postcards of the west, of pubs in the west, of musical instruments under blue skies, of valleys pinpointed by intimate rivers and lakes in the west. She would wait. Brigid couldn’t kiss him properly, his parents didn’t turn their heads for long enough. In the toilet Sheena and Brigid decided to go out together painting once more. Why? There was no need. It must have been the airport, the sense of people fleeing. It must have been. They didn’t tell Padhraig or Jacinta – it was too serious.

They drove to the park in the early darkness and painted if men got pregnant contraception and abortion would be sacraments on the monument built for the pope’s visit. There were lots of letters. Brigid did fifty of them, hers looked sudden and fluid. Sheena’s seven were non-runny and perfect. In the paper the next day you could tell there had been two people. The worst part of it all was doing what Sheena said they had to do afterwards – go to the nearest pub, pee on their hands, and then wash them under the tap. The worst, but she was right. It got rid of the paint from around their fingernails. Sheena then told Brigid that she, too, was emigrating. Brigid said, ‘Aw God no’, missing her like death already.

Brigid got caught painting a harmless slogan seven years later, one year after the passing of the statute of limitations.

‘It may be a harmless slogan, your honour, but the vandalism of the papal cross in the park wasn’t.’

The judge’s eyes widened into white. ‘Six months,’ he said.

I got caught. I had a standby job taking in the lottery ticket money in my local shop any time the lottery reached seven hundred thousand pounds or more. A customer left half the receipt one night. The winning numbers were marked on it. Not knowing (I should have) which receipt was needed to claim a prize, I chanced my arm and brought the docket in. By an odd coincidence a hundred pounds went missing from the till the same week. Not me, I wouldn’t have the nerve.

‘A hundred pounds may not be a lot of money, your honour, but attempting to procure fraudulently eight hundred and sixty thousand, two hundred and ninety-two pounds is.’

‘Six months,’ he said.

We’re getting out next week and Diarmuid is throwing a party for us.
The Park, first published in the Sunday Tribune, is part of Evelyn Conlon’s collection Telling. In a special edition of the Stinging Fly podcast, Ian Maleney visits Evelyn Conlon to read and discuss The Park

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