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The Young Wan: An Agnes Browne Novelby Brendan O'Carroll
Blessed Heart Girls National School
It is the line that all Catholics get to say just once in their lifetime. Conducted in their rhythm by Sister Concepta Pius, the forty-four young little girls in the Communion class sang out the line in unison, like a tiny girls' choir.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession," they sang. Although the little girls were still three years from having to say this in a real confessional, in the Blessed Heart School, the nuns believed it was never too early to prepare for communion with God.
"Well done, my little angels." Sister Concepta Pius smiled. "Now, is everybody clear on that?" The nun's squinting eyes scanned the room.
As usual there was just one hand in the air, and as usual it was the hand of Marion Delany. Sister Concepta raised her eyes slowly to heaven and asked, "Yes, Marion?"
Marion Delany stood, but you could hardly notice. Marion Delany was the tiniest girl in the class, and yet at seven years of age she was two years older than the rest of the girls. It was not that Marion had been held back a couple of years in school because of any learning difficulty. The fact was that, until she was seven years of age, Marion Delany had never attended school. The reason for this is simple, yet complicated, as Marion's mother tried to explain to the officer from the Department of Education who called to her home. The officer had been sent there when the department realized that a child from the Birth Register seven years previously had yet to come on to the School Register, two years after she should have. It was all to do with public transport, Marion's mother tried to explain. You see, in Dublin, no child four years or younger had to pay any fare to travel on public transport. Now, the Delany family was made up of two boys and eight girls. The girls ranged in age from four years of age to fourteen years of age, and the truth is that between the four-year-old and the fourteen-year-old the height difference was barely noticeable. When traveling with their mother on public transport, the Delany children were always schooled that if a bus conductor should ask them what age they were they should say "four." With so many daughters and after so many trips, Mrs. Delany simply forgot what age each of her children was. If anybody asked any Delany girl what age she was, the immediate answer would be "four." And, truthfully, as Marion stood in the aisle of the classroom that morning with her hand in the air, she really looked like she could just be little more than four.
"You have a question, Marion Delany?" the nun asked for the twentieth time that day, for Marion always had a question. Marion took a deep breath and asked her question.
"Sister, do cats and dogs have souls?" she asked.
"No, Marion. Sit down," Sister Concepta answered. Marion didn't sit.
"Not even teensy-weensy little souls, like just this size?" And she held her two fingers just slightly apart.
"Marion, shut up and sit down," Sister Concepta simply answered, and Marion sat down. Sister Concepta now continued with the lesson.
"Once you have spoken these words-'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession'-God will open His heart and carry the weight of your sins for you for the rest of your life." She smiled.
Marion Delany's hand went up. Marion didn't stand this time or wait to be asked, she simply blurted out the question.
"Is a sin heavy, Sister?"
"Shut up, Marion."
Sister Concepta carried on to a hushed classroom: "This is God's lesson in forgiveness. He opens His heart and forgives you all your sins, as you must forgive others theirs. God tells you in the Bible that, if someone slaps you on the cheek, what do you do?"
"Kick him in the balls." The answer from the tiny voice was perfectly timed.
"Who said that?" Sister Concepta nearly screamed.
Every other girl in the class knew it was Marion Delany, but they were from the Jarro, and even at five years of age you knew that nobody likes a snitch. Yet the honor among the girls was wasted.
"I did," came Marion's tiny voice. She stood with her hand in the air. "That's what my dad said you do if somebody slaps you, you kick him in the balls."
Sister Concepta took two long strides and was standing in front of Marion, towering over the little girl. Marion had a round, chubby body with a round head and an ever-present smile. Marion's beaming smile slowly disappeared as the great dark figure of the nun scowled down at her.
"Marion Delany, if I ever hear such language in this class again I'll...I'll..." She dragged Marion to the front of the class. She shoved her hand beneath her tunic, and when her hand reappeared it held a leather strap.
"Hold out your hand!" Sister Concepta screamed at the terrified little girl.
Marion knew what was coming. Slowly she stretched out her right arm and opened her palm. She stood there looking like a tiny pink snowman with one arm. In her seat Agnes closed her eyes. She couldn't look. Marion received four slaps, one for each word. Sister Concepta spoke:
Following the fourth slap, Sister Concepta put her hands on her hips and screamed at Marion, "Do you understand that, girl?"
The little girl was biting her bottom lip. Two rivulets ran down her cheeks, but she managed to nod her head furiously. Just at that moment the school bell sounded for the mid-morning break, bringing to a close for now Marion Delany's lesson in forgiveness. At the "little break," Agnes went looking for Marion in the schoolyard. Agnes was fascinated by this tiny girl. The schoolyard was not a big one, and Agnes soon saw Marion standing alone at the railings that surrounded the yard. They were old Victorian rails painted black, with each upward bar topped with an arrowhead, giving the impression of a prison yard more than a schoolyard. This impression was reinforced when Agnes found Marion, for she was standing with each of her pudgy little hands holding a bar and her face wedged streetward between two more bars. Agnes approached her cautiously. After the beating she had seen the girl take in class, Agnes expected that Marion was having a weep. When Agnes spoke she spoke to Marion's back.
"Are you all right?" Agnes said softly. Marion turned to her with an unexpected beaming smile. "Yeh, didn't hurt," but Agnes knew it did, and she knew Marion was using the cold metal bars to cool her thrashed hands. Without any bother, Marion flew straight into conversation with Agnes, and as Agnes was to learn, this was Marion's way.
"You're the prettiest girl in the class," Marion said simply to Agnes.
"You. The prettiest. Everybody says so, and I'm the ugliest."
"No, you're not," Agnes said.
"Who's uglier, then? Come on, who's uglier than me?" Marion asked. She spoke only in a matter-of-fact tone-no self-pity, just the facts. Agnes was stuck for a reply. "See, I told you. It doesn't matter, 'cause I have a job and I'm going to marry a man that sells insurance. My mother says that they'd go with anyone. Who are you going to marry?" Agnes was breathless just trying to listen to this conversation.
"What? I don't know who I'm going to marry," Agnes stammered out.
"You should marry, eh, an airline pilot. They like pretty girls, you could fly anywhere you like, and they give you chewing gum as well, as much as you want, I seen it on the pictures."
The end of break bell sounded, and Agnes looked over to the school doorway; the various class groups were getting into line to march back into class. She turned back to Marion.
"We better go in," Agnes said and extended her hand. "Come on."
"Nah, you go on, I'm going to work." Marion began to climb the railings.
"But Sister Conception will miss you." Agnes was aghast.
"I don't care." Marion was now on the other side of the rails. "See ya."
"But she'll slap you tomorrow for this." Agnes was panicking now. Marion began to trot away, calling over her shoulder, "She'll slap me anyway, see ya." And she was gone. Agnes returned to the class, but thought of nothing else for the afternoon except this girl who seemed to have no fear. That's what Agnes wanted, what every child wants more than anything else. Just to be not afraid. Within days the two girls were friends. Within weeks they were inseparable, and within months Agnes Reddin was not afraid. They did everything together, growing to have a great influence on each other. Marion began to spend more time at school, and Agnes became more and more unafraid. Incredibly, they would manage to make it through their childhood and teens without ever falling out, as children usually do.
Now, years later, as they lay on the floor holding hands, they wore each other's friendship like a second skin. They lay there breathless and smiling, looking up at the dress.
"You're going to go through with it, aren't you? You're determined to wear that dress," Marion said.
"Uh-huh," Agnes confirmed.
"You're a stubborn bitch, do you know that?" Marion half sat as she said this.
"Not stubborn, Marion, I just know what's right, and this is right. It's a stupid rule made by stupid people," Agnes said, stubbornly.
"Made by the Pope," Marion exclaimed.
"Well, so what? What would he know about marriage anyway? If you don't play the game, don't make the rules. That's what I say!" And they both laughed again.
Agnes' rebellious stand was typical of her. She did not lick it from the ground, it was in her genes. It stretched back before she was born to a time when making a stand for what you thought was "right" could cost you your life.
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