Our pal, Wag, was a Roman Catholic which meant very little to us except for his stories of how the teaching nuns in his school could swing a really vicious, stinging strap when some brash youngster (Wag) failed to toe the line. As I remember, the nuns had a house on the Mere Road close to Dale Street.
Wag served as an altar boy. Religion was never discussed but if all Catholic mums and dads were as kind and caring as his lovely Mam & Dad, then I was all for the Catholic faith! (Although when the mood was on her, Wag’s Mam had a tongue like a wasp sting!)
Periodically, the local Sacred Heart Catholic Church held a procession which was well worth seeing, in fact people came from near and far to witness it. It was one of the highlights of the social, as well as church calendar and the streets would be thronged along the processional route.
In the lead was a massive cross, as it should be. Next came ‘The Sally’ (Salvation Army) band belting out hymns with their usual gusto, with banners flying and instruments gleaming as though made of gold and silver. On they marched – God’s own: the men wearing their peaked caps whilst the women wore those quaint old fashioned bonnets, at the back of which could be seen their hair, plaited and wound round and around like Catherine wheels. As they marched a few waved as they tapped their tambourine, beribboned and manipulated, whilst keeping time to the music as though tied to a master keyboard, and THEN, right at the very back of the band, the one we were all looking out for, the big drum carrier & beater.
Red of face, he brought up the rear of the band, the last but certainly not the least, often as he tired, leaning back at a seemingly impossible angle as he sought to counterbalance the drum. Did Our Sweet Saviour, one asked oneself, carry such a burden on his way to martyrdom? Of course, this was long before the days of light plastics, and so should the march be a long one, one other person would pace beside him. He was ready to bear a little of the burden when the beat began to fall off due to that exhaustive weight, for they, or most of them, were on the same poor diets as the rest of us.
After the band came the church dignitaries and sideman, each with their wand of office, then the priests in black or crimson cassocks with pure white surplices trimmed with the most intricate lace, then the choir and altar boys, Wag amongst them.
Suddenly, Mrs Bishop’s little devil looked like an angel as he swung his incense burner. I always tried to get a smell of that incense but never could. Sprinkled within that throng of procession would be the statues and effigies I loved to see. Each would be carried on four shoulder shafts and carried on the shoulders of four very strong men. They had to be strong for those statues were heavy and they had a long journey ahead. Grave faced they passed by, but proud, for it was counted to be a great honour to carry those effigies of the Holy ones; Here, the Holy Mother, head downcast adoringly at her blessed son ‘Our Lord’. She was dressed in a sky blue cloak under which was a pure white shift. The child, often depicted as naked, gazed up adoringly at his clear-eyed mother, one chubby hand outstretched to touch her dear face. The hand as yet unblemished or marked with those terrible nail wounds, his brow still clear of the scratches and tear marks of that final indignity; His crown of thorns. Caught up a moment or two later with the raw emotion of what was now passing, a low moaning sob came from all sides, Catholic and non-Catholic, as we now saw the terrible sight of Christ, carried aloft, nailed to the cross by grotesque nails in hands & feet, the great wound in His side, blood streaming down His poor tortured face from the holes in His head and forehead, made by the crown of thorns crushed down upon His innocent head until it seemed His skull had been pierced.
Now we could see a near miracle as the ladies who lined the processional route, rich & poor, Catholic and many non-Catholics, believers and doubters, hesitatingly dropped a knee in a curtsey, whilst the men bowed their heads submissively.
Finally, as though to reassure, (and isn’t that what Christianity is about) stood Christ the risen Lord, proud and yet so humble, strong & yet so vulnerable. Stood on that rough wooden platform, held so proudly aloft for all men to see if only they would look, to seek, standing in a heap of flowers, so lovingly arranged.
Spread throughout the procession were the children, beautifully and proudly dressed, all in white, by parents, many of whom went short to provide for this special day. In stark contrast, the nuns accompanying them in their black habits with the stiffly starched pure white cowls framing their faces, all of whom seemed to have peaches and cream complexions.
Most of the little girls carried a posy: their dresses were white, sandals were white and white ribbons or flowers adorned their hair. How did the families of these children, so many to my certain knowledge very poor, as poor in fact as the proverbial church mice, manage to get the money together? Perhaps it was the parable of the loaves and fishes in another form?! The boys too were dressed in white: white shirt, white short trousers, white sandals.
Now we were coming to the end of the procession, so far back that the sound of the band could not be heard, with the men and women walking in silence. The men, red faced and sweating in the warmth of the day, dressed in thick serviceable serge and stiff celluloid easy to sponge collars which sawed into their necks, the wearers no doubt hoping that the end would soon be in sight so they could quench their monumental thirst in the pub. No doubt the ‘Father’ (priest) would join them, for many of the Fathers liked a drink.
With the men came the ladies of the church, sometimes with them, sometimes marching apart. Today when I hear the expression ‘the church militant’, I think of the ‘Sally Army’ and those Catholic ladies in procession. Many choked with emotion as though at this time they really were going, as others’ centuries before had gone, to see their adored one nailed to the cross. Equally, I am sure that had they been at that wicked place of execution, they would soon have put a stop to the murder of an innocent man. Choked with emotion then, the ladies walked, some hand in hand, dressed in black and veiled, the proud and the meek, old grudges forgotten, and then, seemingly spontaneously, breaking into that glorious hymn to Mary the Mother of God…….. ‘Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!’
Had I been in Satan’s shoes and had I seen those devoted women advancing upon me as they advanced that day giving witness to their faith, then I think I would have turned and run back to Hades!
Ronnie and I called at Wag’s house late upon the afternoon of this great procession and were not at all surprised to be received with the greatest suspicion by his Mam, understandably so, for she had spent the best part of the day polishing his face & hands and getting him ready for the procession. It was Sunday afternoon, and Ronnie and I had just returned from the Morton Road Mission Hall Sunday School. We looked pretty presentable so what was the harm in letting those tidy, clean little boys, who now stood before her, in to see ‘Our Wag’ in all his glory!? I think Wag’s mother must have temporarily forgotten that ‘boys will be boys’, either that or she had, without realising it, lost her reason!
Wag came at his mother’s call and stood beside her in all his processional glory! He looked great! His normally rosy cheeks shone like two apples and his clear, grey eyes fixed on Ronnie and me in turn, daring us to laugh, whilst on his brow was a bead of sweat which Wag was never without. White was definitely his colour: white shirt open at the neck, short white trousers, white knee length socks (as usual with Wag, one was heading down towards his ankle) and, to finish it all off, white sandals. We stood in awed silence surveying the glory that was our ‘bestest pal’, Wag! His Mam, with her face pouring with perspiration (it must have taken some exertion to get her Wag as clean as that) wiped her face on her apron, impressed with our reaction to the new look ‘Wag Bishop’.
‘I’m just going to get you a clean hankie, Charlie’ she said.
This was a first, calling him by his given name.
‘Now, don’t you dare move off that step!’ She added, thereby proving she HAD temporarily lost her mind!
Next door to Wag’s parents’ house was Ballard, the Coal Merchant’s Yard, where a lorry and various old, worn out buses were stored. Running free were lots of hens. They were quite safe as the yard was bounded by high brick walls on two sides, high entrance gates at the front and on the last side, Wag’s side, a low brick wall with wooden fencing fastened to the top. It would’ve been difficult to look over that wall but for the fact that running up alongside it were wooden steps leading up to the loft over Mr Bishop’s horse’s stable. (Tommy)
Now, as the cock crowed to Peter signalling his denial of Christ, a hen over the wall cackled, which was to lead to Wag’s near martyrdom as we shall see. The three of us chimed in chorus,
‘That hen’s just laid an egg!’
Lay, those hens certainly did, for often we boys would climb halfway up the steps and through the broken windows of the bus just to see the eggs. With an awful feeling of impending doom I followed Wag and our Ron as they tiptoed down the yard and crept up the loft ladder. Please, please Mrs Bishop, I was desperately thinking, come downstairs and see what these two are up to before it’s too late!
Sadly, my prayers were not answered and so, like a lamb to the slaughter, I joined the pair of them crouching half-way up the stairs to the loft. Wag as always, the born leader, was giving us a running commentary….
‘I bet it was laid by the one that came out the old bus,’ he said,
And then without a by your leave or what do you think chums, he straddled the fence, dropped into the coal yard and, running crouched down to the door of the wrecked bus, he vanished inside.
‘You won’t half cop it, Wag Bishop’ I was whimpering, only to be told by Ron to, ‘shut up our Norm or his Mam’ll hear you!’
A moment or two later, which to me seemed like hours, and then to my relief, Wag emerged from the bus. All Ronnie was interested in was,
‘Have you got the egg, Wag?’
Nothing came back by way of reply except Wag holding aloft ONE EGG – and he still looked clean! He came to the wall and gazed up at us.
‘Give us your hand’ he said to Ron, who at once leaned over to such an impossible angle that I was sure he’d go over ‘arse over tip’.
‘I can’t reach you’ whispered Wag.
Hardly had the words left his mouth when from the house we heard,
‘Charlie, Charlie, where are you? I warn you, if you’ve dirtied your clothes, I promise I’ll skin you alive!!’
PANIC STATIONS…………Wag took a leap for the top of the fence again but he couldn’t hold on with only one hand. (The other was holding the egg!) Again,
‘Wag, come here this minute!’
Now, with Wag running back and forth the hens began to panic - dozens of the things squawking loud enough to wake the dead. His Mam wasn’t deaf or dead but I had the feeling that if she saw her pride and joy in that coal yard Wag soon would be! That decided him. Going right back he put the egg in the breast pocket of his shirt then took a flying leap up to the top of the wall. Hurrah! He made it, although his body slammed with such force against the wooden partition I quite expected it to collapse. It held. Over he came, joining us as we sprinted up the yard to arrive just in time as his Mam arrived at the back door.
‘If you’ve messed up your clothes our Charlie, I will kill you, I swea……’
She stopped short. There we stood like three innocent angels, reproach in our eyes! How could she think that in five minutes flat we…….her eyes softened, the kill glare faded….until at that exact moment Wag looked down as he wondered at the sticky feeling at his breast, and saw to his horror, as did she, soaking through that lovely immaculate pristine white shirt, the yellow yolk, closely followed by the white of the egg which had been crushed against the fence boards! It gets worse for the yellow had a nasty greenish tinge to it, and the smell!
Be merciful dear reader and allow me to draw a curtain over what happened next!