Down all the years, down all the days
And I’ve cried for all your troubles
Smiled at your funny little ways
We watched our friends grow up together
And we saw them as they fell
Some of them fell into Heaven
Some of them fell into Hell
–Shane MacGowan, “Rainy Night in SoHo“
I use postcards, flyers, letters, and photos as bookmarks, and tend to leave them in place when I’m finished. It’s a message-in-a-bottle to my future self, tying, say, a ticket stub from a film I loved to the book I read waiting in the queue. Stuck on page 173 of Toni Morrison’s Jazz is the US Embassy receipt for my first J1 visa application back in college. The combined artefacts make for found memories as powerful as songs or smells.
On Bloomsday I took down Ellman’s biography of Joyce to look for more pictures of my new love, Nora. “Dearbhaile Hanley Christmas 1992 Limerick” said the flyleaf, and out fluttered a small photo from long before that: my secondary school class at the end of our first year. Thirty twelve-year-olds, arranged in three rows under the school crest and motto, _Crescentes in Illo per Omnia_. I’m still not sure what that means.
Our classes were named for dead Jesuits, with each intake year given a letter. Briant, Bellarmine, Borgia, Berchmans, Bobola. Our class was De Britto. We never thought much about the man behind the name. Did he die of malaria in some equatorial swamp, doubting God in a sweat-drenched soutane? (This was before Google, which shows Blessed John De Brito–with one ‘t’–to be an interesting fellow, a Portuguese nobleman who became a Jesuit Swami in Madras, and was beheaded for his trouble.) I always liked the name, and more so when an unfortunate religion teacher snapped and rechristened us. He was a country farmer who came late to teaching, and our toxic behavior disillusioned him fast.
“De Britto!” he yelled. “It’s De BRATTO ye are. De BRATTO! A shower of brats and no more!”
We don’t look like brats in the photo. The front row kids have hands neatly placed on their knees, and the back row stands on plastic chairs, arms hanging down like Riverdancers. Our faces have the unformed blurriness of going-on-thirteen. Every single one of the girls has cut the long hair we started the year with. None of the kids is fat, not even the one we thought was at the time. Our shoulders are narrow in navy, crested jumpers. The girls wear kneesocks and navy skirts, the boys wear grey pants. (We all wore tackies, as Limerick called trainers/sneakers. For some reason we weren’t allowed to wear proper shoes. They’ve reversed that rule now, just as arbitrarily.)
I feel like God, holding this photo from the era of Live Aid and moving statues. I look at the formless little faces of my classmates and know their futures. I see which of them will marry each other and what their children will look like. I know who will get religion, become an actor, come out, or move to San Francisco. At the end of the front row sits the sweet and quiet girl in whose bedroom four of us compared notes after our first class party that same month. (The girls a head taller than the boys, and Phyllis Nelson lowing at us to “Moooooove Closer” while Fr. McGuckian read a book…) Her squishy white boot tackies are as familiar as my own scuffed Dunnes’ Stores efforts, and in the wisdom bought with twenty years, I see her future. “Don’t worry about kissing Frosty,” I want to whisper, “You’re going to grow up to be a sound engineer, and you’ll meet Peter Gabriel.”