Brendan Brodie was the most envied boy enrolled at Our Lady Help of the Hopeless; he was never there. None of us students had ever seen Brendan, but we had all heard of him. Every morning after assembly Sister Mary Tortia would lead us in a prayer for Brendan’s recovery. His family had come out from
and enrolled Brendan in our school, only to learn he had some unpronounceable illness. He had never attended a single class. England
We finally saw Brendan one morning after playlunch. We always had arithmetic after playlunch, and Sister Mary Confusia had just written a sum on the blackboard which said:
Divide £64/17/11 evenly between 17 people.
Sister had a very special way of stabbing the blackboard with her chalk, to make sure her i’s were dotted and her pound signs crossed. After she finished writing on the board she would usually add a few extra stabby dots just for the heaven of it, and this morning was no exception. She stood back to admire her handiwork.
If doing plain long division was Purgatory, trying to do long division with LSD [pounds shillings and pence] was my first glimpse of Hell. I still couldn’t even rule red lines properly without getting finger bumps in them from where I was holding the ruler.
Normally we put the letters AMDG at the top of every page of our exercise books to remind us our work should glorify God. For arithmetic, however, I preferred the more direct cry for help, JMJ.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph [I place my trust in thee]” was a popular ejaculation, as it would obtain an indulgence of seven years each time it was said. [An indulgence is the Catholic equivalent of a remission of one’s sentence, or time off Purgatory for good behaviour. It was not until years later I would learn of another sort of ejaculation; a different type of indulgence which could only add to one’s sentence.]
We were forbidden to use biros, not just because they were expensive and could lead to a sin of pride, but because they were designed by the devil, a protestant, to induce slovenly writing habits in Catholic kids. I scratched away with my fountain pen, praying the inky mess would conceal my ineptitude. I wrote:
£64 ÷ 17 = 3 with £13 remainder.
Convert £13 to shillings:
It was just then, when I thought that even Our Lady Help of the Hopeless couldn’t save me, Brendan opened the classroom door. At first we didn’t know who he was, but we didn’t care. He didn’t stay long; just the few moments it took to open the door, produce a couple of armpit raspberries, and run off. Our prayers were answered.
When Sister Mary Succour, the Principal, went to visit Brendan’s parents they were surprised to hear about Brendan’s illness, and he was exposed as a brilliant but shameless forger.
Mr Brodie found the only way to get Brendan to school was to escort him right up to Sister Confusia, our grade teacher, and hand him over. From time to time he would just get up and run away, but eventually he came to think of school as fun.
Within hearing of the nuns, Brendan spoke only arpy-darpy. To speak arpy-darpy, thereby becoming unintelligible to all but the most practised speakers, one simply inserted the syllables arp or darp into normal words at regular intervals.
When Sister Confusia said “Good morning, class”, Brendan would answer “garpood marpornarping”. When Sister said The Lord’s Prayer, Brendan would begin with “Ourpy Farpytharper”. When Sister upset Brendan, he would smile beguilingly and tell her to “Garpet F’darpucked”.
It was Brendan who told us that the seed pods from plane trees make great itchy powder. It was Brendan who told us how to paint pennies silver and pass them off as two bob bits. More importantly, it was Brendan who had an endless supply of deener sized washers: We could play pinball machines for hours and, eventually, when the coin box was full, every washer dropped in would force a real shilling out of the coin return.
We felt so close to him it hurt us too whenever Sister Mary Tortia, herself the very model of a modern Corporal Punishment, gave him the strap.
Brendan, we discovered, was a child genius. He could not only work out long division of pounds, shillings, and pence: When the government announced our currency was going decimal in a few years’ time, he was the only one who could work out the new, simpler system. He could quickly calculate, for example, that a motor car which cost 999
today would cost $2,097.90 in the new money. He warned us that a Coke bottle which was now worth threepence [and which would therefore buy 12 licorice blocks] would soon be worth only two cents [or eight licorice blocks]. He also correctly predicted that we would have trouble buying anything with halfpennies unless we had two of them together. Guineas
Sister Mary Confusia could not adapt at all. Every time she wrote on the blackboard, her stabby chalk would leave little decimal points all over the place, making it difficult for her to divide the new money up amongst the average sized Irish Catholic family. [Seventeen was the number of children recommended to those with a special devotion to St Patrick, as his feast day is the 17th March.]
At Brendan’s urging, we all developed crossed nibs, causing little decimal dots of ink to flick all over our exercise books. Sister relented and permitted us to use biros for arithmetic.
Not long after our world went decimal, Catholic services became vulgar. Priests now faced the congregation to say mass, and could see who was fidgeting in Church. [They could also see who was still sneaking halfpennies into the collection plate.] Nuns developed new, ugly little habits, and Brendan’s parents decided to go home to
Brendan promised he would come back one day, even if he had to forge his own ticket and passport.
He probably did.