Gerard F. Kennedy Writer

short story / 2001

The High Altar

I decided that leaving home was the only way to escape.  I was eight years old.  I could deal with the outside world; and all of its problems that my mother kept going on about.

A plan of action was needed.  But first I’d have to get up when my mother called.  To dress, have breakfast and walk to the monastery to serve 6.30 mass.

I hated the long walk in the cold with my mother.  She walked so fast and my little legs struggled to keep up.  I had no choice because she held my hand firmly.

There’d be no escape before reaching the monastery.

The little brown case was heavy.  It was stuffed with a starched surplice, black soutane, black slippers, black bow tie and stiff white collar.  Sometimes she would carry it.  Because she knew I walked quicker without it.

That morning the journey didn’t bother me.  I was busy working out how I was going to run away.  My mother was talking but I didn’t really hear her.  Anyway she was probably saying her prayers; praying for a better life and an obedient son.

When we reached the monastery I left my mother and walked through into the sacristy to change.

Brother Bernard greeted me with his usual scowl and told me to hurry up.

“You’re serving mass on Our Lady’s altar with Father Reid this morning.”

My mother would be disappointed.  She preferred to see me on the main altar.  But I didn’t mind her not being able to see me clearly.

It meant she wouldn’t be able to criticise me afterwards.

I thought some more about my plan.

Father Reid called me and I lined up behind him, gazing up at the gold braid stole around his neck.  The bell was rung and we walked out in front of the standing congregation.

The mass started and the only sounds were the priest’s Latin and my responses.

The priest stood at the centre of the marble altar, head bowed and hands joined in prayer.  And the time came to move the missal on its large wooden stand from one side of the altar to the other.

I reached up and just managed to grab the feet of the stand and pull it towards the edge of the altar.

Father Reid was deep in prayer waiting for the great book to appear on his other side.  But I wasn’t tall enough to get a grip on the stand.  I could only manage to keep pulling it by its feet towards me.

Now the force of gravity took over and the stand and missal dropped to the red carpet, narrowly missing the priest’s large, black, shiny shoe.  I was horrified.  As I squatted down to get the book, knowing I hadn’t a chance of lifting it, I caught a glimpse of my mother’s face.  She was glaring, with her ‘wait till I get you home’ look.

I had let her down again.

Father Reid patted me on the head, bent down and lifted the missal and stand to its proper place on the altar.

The rest of the mass was a blur.

Brother Bernard wasn’t aware that anything had gone wrong.  It was only my mother that I would have to face.

The long journey home was hell.  Now she would be watching my every move.

I wouldn’t be able to escape…today.


(First broadcast on ‘Sunday Miscellany’ RTE Radio 1, 11th November 2001)