Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Wooden-Legged Elephant - Chapter 1

“Out Of Bounds Means OUT OF BOUNDS!” shrieks Father Kelly.

“You don’t fucking say…” One of the things I like about Bolley is that even when he uses words I haven’t heard of, I do know what he means. I have to guess how to spell them though, because they’re never in The Catholic Family Dictionary, and he never knows. His spelling is shight.

I am eight years old, nearly nine. The sun is coming through the big windows of the assembly hall, which is good news because, if the rain keeps off, we get to play football after lunch. Our school, St. Stephen’s, hasn’t got a pitch, so on Tuesdays we walk down the main road to the protestant school in Underchurch, which has got a cracking one with proper white lines and corner flags and nets. You would think that it would be the other way round and the Underchurch kids would have to walk up here to use our pitch. I’ve noticed, though, that being a Catholic doesn’t always mean you get better treatment than protestants, even if we get spelled with capital letters and they don’t. Me nan says this is because God moves in mysterious ways.

We get changed in the classroom here. Today I can’t wait, because I’ve got a new Everton shirt. Actually, it isn’t new. It was Davie’s from down the road, but he’s too big for it now and his mam gave it to me nan – they know each other from church. I pulled it on over my uniform in the playground before the bell rang, and showed it to Bolley. I would have let him have a go at wearing it too, but it was too small for him.

It’s hard to concentrate on thinking about my shirt at the moment, though, because Father Kelly is off on one. Usually he talks dead slowly, like a divvie, with Capital Letters everywhere. And he can’t say his “r”s.

“Pwear is the Answer. If we stop Pwaying then we turn our Backs on

lmighty God.” When he stops, and he’s always stopping, we’re supposed to Think and Reflect. It’s no use, though. He could let us Think and Weflect until the Last Judgment and we still wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

He talks bollocks, Bolley says. It’s funny – Bolley can’t spell, like I said, and I have to help him when we have a test, and he always gets bad marks in English, but his words sound like what they mean, and you could listen to him all day. But listening to Father Kelly is like listening to a robot that’s not working properly. It’s funny for about half a minute and then you just get bored. It’s bad enough him talking in Capital Letters all the time, but when he is angry he speaks in BLOCK CAPITALS. And he is always getting angry – as Bolley says, he might not be able to say his “r”s but he’s great at seeing his arse, and when he does there’s no way you can listen to him for long. His words hit you and bounce off you, a bit like me grandad’s sledgehammer off the concrete. Me grandad works on building sites and sometimes he lets me go and sit in the cab of one of the cranes or watch him smashing stuff. I heard him say to me nan once, when he thought I wasn’t listening, that Father Kelly is a dreadful fucker.

“He’s English.” says me nan, which is not something you want her to say about you, even if you are. “Still, a priest’s a priest.” Though you can tell that deep down she thinks he’s a dreadful fucker too. She wouldn’t say it like that, obviously, because she only uses words from The Catholic Family Dictionary, and “fucker” isn’t in it. I checked.

When me nan starts going on about the English, me grandad mutters and pours himself a Jameson’s. He keeps the bottle by his armchair and he has got this glass that he won’t let me nan wash. “Sure, the whiskey kills more bacteria than soap and water ever will.” Before he drinks it, he holds it up and smiles at it. Me nan says that long before I was a twinkle in my poor daddy’s eye, Grandad used to smile at her like that. And he didn’t use to mutter.

“Jimmy O’Hare, now he was my idea of a priest.” Me grandad’s voice is quieter than other people’s, but he’s easy to listen to because he puts loads of his words into italics, especially after he’s had a few glasses. Evie, me nan’s fat friend from Manchester, the one who smells really old, says I talk like him. She says I’m precautious, which I think must be bad, because it isn’t in The Catholic Family Dictionary either. I read too much for a kid, she reckons.

Anyway, like I was telling you, Kelly is seeing his arse about something.


The hall goes dead quiet, and you can hear the piece of paper shaking in his horrible yellow hand. He always trembles more when he is not smoking.

“Stephen Libble, come out here, Now.”

I get a funny feeling in my stomach, like I need a pooh. Bolley steps forward. “Bolley” isn’t his real name, you see. His real name is Stephen Libble. The rows of kids part for him like the Red Sea. Like the Dead Sea. No one is breathing.

“STEE-PHEN LIB-BLE!!!” Father Kelly uses hyphens and exclamation marks a lot too. I like hyphens (and brackets) but I hate exclamation marks. Miss McManus, who is pretty and our student-teacher this year, told us they are ugly and unnecessary. “Like fascists, and mosquitoes,” she said, “though I don’t suppose you get many of those in Birkenhead.” “Like Liverpool supporters, I said – we get loads of them.” And she laughed. She’s even prettier when she laughs and I think she secretly supports Everton, though she didn't actually say she does. She laughed again when I asked her, and stroked my hair, and then I forgot about Everton.

“STEE-PHEN LIB-BLE!” He repeats himself a lot too, Father Kelly. And his mouth and chin shake when he screams. The glass in his glasses is like the bottom of a milk bottle before you rinse it out, and his eyes are like the ones on the dead fish in Collins’s shop window.

“Who Do You Think You Are?”

Bolley is crap at grammar and spelling, like I said, but he’s not stupid. He knows who he is. And he knows that sometimes teachers ask you questions they don’t want you to answer. He is the cock of the lower school. Everyone knows that. Fat Boy, who fancies himself as a bit of an expert on these things (Bolley says that fat boys become experts on things to make up for being fat), can tell you how many fights (nineteen) he has won and how many (none) he has lost. Usually you can bet with McInerny on who will win a fight. But not on Bolley.

“Do you Think we make these Wules for Fun?” I think the answer to this question is supposed to be “No”. But the weird way Kelly smiles when he says it, makes you Think and Weflect.

“Is Football more Wimportant than Aaall-Mighty GO-O-OD?”

The answer to this is also supposed to be “No”, but Bolley’s got this smile on his face like rubbed out pencil. You have to look close to see it, but it’s there. And you can tell that he wants to say “Yes, it is. So fuck you, fish-eyes.” And the thing with Bolley is, you know he might do it. But even though part of me wants him to say it, part of me is scared for him. In The World of Insects, which me grandad got me for my birthday, there’s a picture of a praying mantis. It’s the dead spit of Father Kelly, and it’s about to eat a friendly-looking little bug. Bolley isn’t little, but next to Father Kelly he looks like he is.

So I say a prayer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. He only went to get the ball back, God. It was a good, Catholic thing to do. And it was such a great game (four-all, if You remember, with three minutes to go), and it’s not like he went into someone’s garden, he only went into the spinney, and that’s part of the school. It shouldn’t be out of bounds at all. He didn’t even step on any flowers there, for Go…for goodness sake. Please don’t let Kelly beat him. Amen.

Father Kelly is looking down the hall with his horrible dead-mackerel eyes. When he looks at you, you want to start crying and shout “Yes, it was me, but don’t hurt me anyway.” Bolley doesn’t say a word but he smiles his fuck-off smile. That makes me feel good, like when Everton score. But there’s no way that Kelly is not going to cane him now. If I was God, I’d send down a flash of lightning and blow the priest’s hand off, but I know that the real God doesn’t do stuff like that. This makes me so angry sometimes that my head hurts.

“Let this – be a Lesson – to you All! – gwow Up – to Wespect – our Father win Heaven!”

Father Kelly sort of smiles when he hits people. Bolley doesn’t cry till the fifth stroke, and he doesn’t cry with his mouth. There’s just two tears. They actually look quite cool. And his face still says “Fuck off”. But the priest is still smiling that strange smile. He’s scary. I think he scares Jimmy Harvey, the school protestant, because Jimmy pisses a pool onto the floor, and Helen Davies in front of him ends up in it, and the shock of it makes her piss her own pants. Helen Davies is an immigrant from Betws-y-Coed. She’s a methodist and the only other non-Catholic in the school. I suppose that’s God and his mysterious ways again.

Mrs Berry, who has eyes like a shit-house rat, is over like a shot. While she is hauling the pissers away, a girl I have never seen before, with a crumply face and yellowy-brown eyes, turns and looks at me.

“Wasn’t me,” I say, and then feel stupid.

She smiles like she thinks I’ve made a good joke, and I get a funny feeling in my stomach again, but this time I don’t feel like I need a pooh.

The Wooden-Legged Elephant is available in paperback and electronic (Kindle, iPhone, iPad, Android, PC and Mac) format at,,,,, etc.

Cover: Matthew Watkins, "Elephant in the Library"

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