The television was on when Ted went to bed, and it was on when he crept downstairs in the middle of the night for a glass of milk and a digestive biscuit on the side, and it was on when he stirred awake in time for lunch the next day.
It was hard to tell, but Mrs Doyle’s posture seemed as though it might have been more stooped than usual. She sat forward with her hands clawed at her knees, staring at the screen with grey circles rimmed around her pink and staring eyes, and it took several increasingly meaningful coughing fits followed by several nonchalant exclamations along the general lines of oh, now, would you look at the time, and there’s the table looking so bare and ready for some sandwiches, perhaps, or at the very least some biscuits before she could be sufficiently distracted to stir herself away from the screen, and provide sustenance for the day ahead.
“It’s that show, Father, that disgusting show. Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities, and it’s all sorts you get appearing on it. A-a-all sorts,” said Mrs Doyle, with a leery widening of her bloodshot eyes. “Acrobats, you get on it; and dentists, you get on it; and firemen, sometimes, you get on it; and singers, every now and then, you get on it; and bailiffs, you get on it; and—”
“All sorts, eh?” Ted said, in a loud and rather desperate voice. “Right so, Mrs Doyle. Sounds like a laugh,” and here he laughed, with what was also a loud and rather desperate laugh. “If you’d just try to avoid watching it all night, though, that’d be grand. The volume’s rather loud, is the thing. And the theme tune’s rather... bracing. That’s all I’m—”
“—and lawyers, you get on it,” Mrs Doyle continued. Her hand was braced atop the table; she was leaning heavily, burdened with her terrible knowledge, and she was prepared to continue for some time. “And investment bankers, you get on it; and—”
“D’you get fishermen on it?” Dougal inquired.
Mrs Doyle raised her head and looked slowly toward the window. There was an air of tremendous significance to the action. “Oh, you get fishermen on it. Did I not say you get all sorts on it, Father? Sure, and you get fishermen on it. Fishermen is the least of what you get on it. Fishermen, you get on it; and accountants, you get on it; and—”
“Isn’t that good about the fishermen, Ted? I think that’s great about the fishermen. I always like to see some fishermen.” Dougal balanced another Honey Loop on his spoon, which rested across his bowl with a small wall of Honey Loops built carefully along its length. “Would you look at that, now! Probably the greatest wall of Honey Loops ever built, wouldn’t you say, Ted? Someone call the Book of Records, o-ho-ho!”
“—and journalists, you get on it; and hairdressers, you get on it; and—”
“Dougal, I’ve told you, the chances of Father Christmas mistaking you for one of his own just because you laugh like him are low. The chances are very low, Dougal.”
“It’s mainly the elves I’m interested in,” Dougal said. “I think they must sleep in little bunkbeds, and I’ve always liked the thought of bunkbeds. I tried sleeping under your bed once, Ted, but it wasn’t much like a bunkbed. Too much dust in all the socks down there, mostly.”
Ted rose above this with what he liked to imagine must seem an air of silent, manful struggle. He said, “Your beard’s in the milk, Dougal.”
Dougal tugged the beard’s trailing white tail until the elastic stretched far enough that he could peer down and inspect it. “Ah, so it is! Whatever am I going to do about that, Ted? What a fuss. Oh, what a fuss,” he said sorrowfully – and then his sorrow switched off as abruptly as the electricity had during that whole palaver last summer with Father Jed Boundless and his team of travelling snake-charmers, and the strange case of the disappearing insulation cables: and Dougal dropped the trailing tail of his cotton-wool beard back into the milk again.
“It’s the money that drives them,” Mrs Doyle said. “Lazy good-for-nothings who’d rather writhe and gyrate on national television than pull on their rubber gloves and do an honest day’s work. Rubber gloves or bikinis, Father?”
“I, ah – beg your pardon, Mrs Doyle?”
“Rubber gloves or bikinis? What d’you prefer on a woman, Father? Rubber gloves, like a woman who works till her callouses have callouses and her knee-bones reshape into the pattern of the kitchen tiles and she bleeds and she bleeds and there’s the taste of bleach in the throat from the cleaning and the scrubbing and the grouting—” The accompanying gestures were vigorous, and beginning to grow violent as her voice grew louder: but then the gestures ceased. “Or bikinis,” Mrs Doyle said, “such as a woman might wear to signal... willingness.”
Dougal’s Honey Loop construction project collapsed. It landed in the milk of his cereal bowl with a plop, and he let out a small cry of dismay.
“Well now, Mrs Doyle—”
“Oh, a willing woman is a dirty woman, Father; the Lord put women on this Earth to suffer, not to willingly go along with the unspeakably sticky desires of men—”
“Bikinis!” barked Father Jack, stirred from his unspeakably sticky slumber. “Bikinis! Girls! Girls in bikinis!” A rumbling had begun, rising up from deep within him; within minutes it would become a growl, and then a roar, and then Father Jack would surge to his feet like the first inexorable swell of lava rising above a volcano’s lip: absolute destruction, in slow motion, with an overpowering reek of sulphur.
There was no hesitation: Mrs Doyle ran from the living room with the efficient urgency of a long-steeled paramedic, off to retrieve the rubber nipple attachment for Father Jack’s emergency whiskey with which he might suckle himself into silence.
“What a fuss, eh, Dougal? Maybe it’d be for the best if Jack puts his foot through the television again; might break Mrs Doyle out of her Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities problem, at least. It’s a women’s thing, really, these reality programmes; that’s why men like us don’t get into them the same way Mrs Doyle does. Why, you couldn’t make me watch one of those programmes if you tried! No, there’s nothing in the world could entice me to care about those programmes. Not a single thing, and that’s the truth, Dougal. Not – one – thing.”
Dougal said nothing, primarily because his breath was held and his tongue was clamped between his teeth in concentration, and he was pushing his Honey Loops about in their milk to form an image of the face of Björk; but Ted chuckled to himself anyway, and shook open the morning’s copy of the Craggy Island Enquirer.
‘IRELAND’S GOT CERTAIN ABILITIES’ COMES TO CRAGGY ISLAND! FIRST HEAT OF CRAGGY ISLAND AUDITIONS! £500 CASH PRIZE!
Ted refolded the paper and stood. His heart was filled with steely purpose; he imagined his eyes showed it. A man with a goal, and a mission, and a plan. “Get your coat, Dougal.”
Dougal dropped his spoon at once. Milk splashed onto the table. “Right so, Ted. And my scarf, or will it be just the coat today?”
“You tell me, Dougal. D’you think you’ll need your scarf?”
“Well, I don’t know, Ted! That’s the problem, really. Sometimes I think I’ll need my scarf, but when I go outside it turns out I didn’t need my scarf, but I’ve got it anyway – but sometimes, now,” Dougal said, in the manner of one imparting a great wisdom, “sometimes I think I won’t need my scarf, so I don’t take it – but then it turns out I do need it! So you see, Ted, it’s not as easy as ‘oh, Dougal, do you need it or not’ – it’s a complicated issue, and—”
Ted’s coat was on, and his gloves were on, and he pulled his hat on at a hasty, lopsided angle and sat down on the bottom of the staircase to hurriedly lace his boots. “Get a move on, Dougal! Oh, I can’t bear to imagine what the queues’ll be like – stretching for miles, I should think, all up the coast. Perhaps we’ll have to sleep there. Wouldn’t that be terrible? Perhaps we should take sleeping bags. Perhaps—”
“Ready,” announced Dougal, which by Dougal’s standards he was: coat and scarf and Santa hat and home-made cotton wool beard, and his mittens dangling from his sleeves where they hung tied on by shoelaces. “Off we go, Ted! Oh, what an adventure. I haven’t been on an adventure like this since that time with the aeroplanes and all that aeroplane fuel and the big strings with the hooks on. You remember, Ted; no one thought I could do it, but then I jumped on all those planes, and everything went on fire, and I showed them, all right! Ah, now, that was an adventure! Or – wait,” Dougal said, with a sudden air of craftiness, “wait, Ted, don’t tell me – am I thinking of Die Hard: 2 again, now?”
“You’re thinking of Mrs Curran’s funeral, Dougal.”
“Right you are, Ted. May the Lord rest her soul and all that. Ah – but what an adventure, Ted!”
It was a bitterly cold morning on Craggy Island. In the carpark of the village hall stood a single droopy tent in army green, erected against the corrugated aluminium shelter of the bike shed; a bearded man sat in its mouth, hunched over a camping stove, warming his hands in their fingerless gloves at its naked flame.
“Fathers! Won’t you stop for a cup of tea?” The man raised a Thermos with a jagged gash along its side. His tangled beard wisped in the wind; his fingerless gloves were ragged. “It’s a perishing cold day out here, Fathers, and only the Lord knows how long you might be waiting once you’re in there.”
“Don’t speak to him,” Ted whispered urgently. “Don’t look at him. Just keep going.”
“Got it,” Dougal whispered back, then stopped and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Oi! How long’ve you been here, then?”
“Oh, since the start, my boy.”
“The start of what?” Dougal inquired. Stubborn as a horse at a riverbank, he was taking no notice at all of Ted heaving on his arm with all his weight behind it.
“The start of all of it. The start of everything. I was a young man when I arrived, and I’ll be an old man when I leave. Won’t you share my Thermos, now, Fathers?”
Dougal’s eyes were very round. He had begun to shake his head, while pressing slowly nearer to Ted’s side. “I don’t like this, Ted,” he whispered. “I don’t like this at all. There’s something odd about this, Ted. Ted. Ted, I don’t—”
“Psychological warfare,” Ted whispered back, “it’s all the rage on the mainland. Just keep going, Dougal. Don’t look at him. Don’t make eye contact, or he’ll have you.”
And so they passed him in a hurry, averting their gaze.
It was little better inside. The door opened with a long, ominous creak, and heads turned slowly at this announcement of their arrival. Their stares were accusing; their eyes were hard. Dougal seized the back of Ted’s coat with a small whimper.
“Here for the auditions, are you, Fathers?”
The voice of an elderly woman. Ted set his chin high; he folded his arms sternly at his chest, and stood firm in the doorway. His coat did not billow open around him in a sudden lick of wind, though he would have liked it very much if it had, and he felt it would have been rather appropriate besides. “We are,” he declared. “Oh, we are, all right.”
“Then you’d better get in line, hadn’t you?” The voice was rasping, laden down with threat.
“Oh, we’ll get in line, all right.”
“And you’d better settle in and wait, hadn’t you?”
“Oh, we’ll do that all right. We’ll settle right in. You just watch us,” said Ted, and unfolded his arms just so he could sternly fold them again. “And then we’ll wait, all right. Oh, we’ll wait. You’ll never have seen waiting like it, so.”
“Let’s do it, Ted!” Dougal burst out. “Oh, you’ve got me all pumped up now! Let’s hurry up and wait!” He shook a fist in the direction of the hard-eyed parishioners on their plastic fold-away chairs, then sat down suddenly on a chair of his own. “This is it, Ted! Oh, I’m waiting now, all right! What a buzz! I could do this all day!”
At the other end of the narrow entrance hall, plain double doors began to open. A woman emerged in a patterned housecoat, sobbing into her hands with a pitiful, broken desperation.
Boos began to rise up – hushed and mocking at first, then gathering volume as the woman hurried down the gauntlet of the hallway, until the sound of her sobbing was drowned out and those waiting were on their feet, bellowing after her, jeering with all the power in their lungs – and then she fled from the village hall, and the main door swung closed, and there was silence.
From within the shadowed darkness of the hall itself, there came a booming voice: “Next.”
“What’s your talent gonna be, then, Ted?”
Ted shook his head, and then for good measure gave a low, indulgent chuckle too. “Ah, now, that’d be telling, wouldn’t it?”
“So it would, now,” Dougal agreed. His expectant stare didn’t waver. “What’s it gonna be, then?”
“No – Dougal, what I mean is, I’m not telling. So I said it would be telling, because I won’t be telling.”
“Ah,” said Dougal. “Ah,” he said again, and sat back in his seat, letting out a great impressed exhale. “Ah, that’s crafty, Ted! Ah, you’re good at this.”
Ted modestly dusted a stray speck or twenty of Father Jack’s dandruff from the lapels of his coat. “Psychological warfare, Dougal. For instance, if I asked you what you’ll be doing for—”
“Tin whistle,” said Dougal.
“No,” said Ted, “the point is you don’t tell me what you’re – and anyway, you’re not auditioning! You’re here to support me! I’m the one with star potential!”
The tin whistle emerged from the depths of Dougal’s pockets, new and red and shiny. “Ah, it’s just a bit of a laugh, Ted. Listen to this, will you?”
From the tin whistle came a few shrill blasts.
“...Well, maybe you could audition,” Ted conceded. “Maybe it wouldn’t matter all that much. Just a bit of a—”
The shrillness stuck, and caught, and then the music swept up and left the shrillness far behind. It was a jig, or something like it; the sound of its unearthly reels unspooled through the entrance hall, soaring and falling and hauntingly eerie.
“—laugh, after all,” said Ted, and then found he could say nothing else at all. He brushed tears furiously from his eyes. Others were weeping too, into hands and sleeves and tissues, shot through by the strange beauty of Dougal’s red tin whistle.
At last the music came to an end. The silence held, for a moment; and then Dougal said, “Ah, I know I won’t get chosen, but I’d just like to give it a go anyway, Ted. Just for a laugh. Just so I can say I did it.”
The entrance hall was beginning to empty. People were rising from their seats and running for the exit, choked with tears.
Ted cleared his throat. “I think that’s a bad idea, Dougal. You know how you get when people pay attention to you. It goes to your head, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, it does,” said Dougal, and he bobbed his head several times in fervent affirmation. “You’re right about that, Ted. Ah, but it’s just a bit of a laugh, isn’t it?”
“You’re putting yourself in danger, Dougal. I really don’t think you should be—”
The doors swung open. A man in the face-paint of a clown emerged, taking the slow, slow steps of a person whose shoulders carried the weight of broken dreams. The booming voice resounded: “Next.”
Ted, and Dougal, and the clown: the entrance hall was otherwise deserted. Chairs lay empty and upended where their occupants had sent them clattering to the floor in their haste to flee.
“Just a bit of a laugh,” Dougal said reassuringly, and rose to his feet. “Let’s go, Ted.”
The hall was black as night inside. On the stage a single spotlight glared. It was silent, but for the sound of breathing – somewhere, from someone.
Ted fumbled his way through the darkness until he found the steps, and then found the stage, and then found himself in the spotlight’s glare. He squinted blindly into it, and said, “Ted Crilly. Ah – that’s me. Father Crilly. Father Ted Crilly. Bond, James Bond – ha! A-ha! Ha!”
Silence in the hall.
Ted wiped sweat from his brow, and persevered. “But I expect I’ll use a stage name if I – not to get ahead of myself, of course – though I don’t mind telling you, I’ve brought the house down with this at the opening ceremony of the Priests’ Indoor Short Tennis Tournament three years running!”
A pause for it to sink in. Silence in the hall.
“So, ah. You could use that in the bit of introduction you do, couldn’t you? Next up, Father Crilly, who three years running brought the house down at...”
Silence in the hall. From somewhere in the endless dark, Dougal whooped: “Go, Ted, go!”
“Right. Right, so. So I’ll, ah – begin, then, shall I?”
Silence in the hall.
“Right,” said Ted. He took a deep breath, and then began to swing his arms like a gibbon. “Where’s my bananas? Oo-oo, where’s my bananas? Someone pick lice out my fur and groom me! Someone—it’s an impression,” he explained, breaking hastily off from the hooting monkey voice for a moment, “so, ah – you have to guess who I am. Okay? Just – you can just call it out when you get it. Not – ha, not Dougal, though! Because he already knows! Because he’s, he’s seen it before! Ha! A-ha!”
“Ah, I haven’t got a clue, Ted,” Dougal’s voice called reassuringly.
The impression continued for some minutes more to an audience of silence. Ted admitted, at last, that he was Father Luke Lavish, renowned for his hirsute chest, fondness for bananas, and tendency to hoot occasionally while speaking. He was Father Jerry Press next, and then Father Keith Month; and silence met these impressions, too.
“Tough crowd,” said Ted, wiping sweat from his brow once again. His sleeve was sodden, dripping; his clothes clung wetly to him. “Ha! Ha ha! So I’ll – we’ll have another one now, shall we?”
And, from the darkness: “Next.”
“I was never serious about it, anyway. There are better ways to get famous. I mean, who even watches those programmes?”
“Eighty-one percent of Ireland, Father – regular as clockwork, every Saturday night.”
“Thank you, Mrs Doyle.”
“And here on Craggy Island,” said Mrs Doyle, with a portentous gesture towards the window and the island that lay outside it, “why, Father, on Craggy Island that’s ninety-three percent!”
Ted extracted his next brick from the Jenga tower with a certain savagery. “Thank you, Mrs Doyle.”
“Ninety-three percent! Ah, Fathers, what an opportunity it would be! That’s ninety-three percent of Craggy Island would know your name!”
Ted’s tolerant smile was only slightly hampered by his clenched teeth. “Oh, I think more than ninety-three percent of Craggy Island knows my name already, Mrs Doyle.”
“Oh, they don’t, Father.”
“Oh, I think they do, Mrs Doyle. I, ah – I am the priest, after all! Ha!”
“They don’t, so,” Mrs Doyle said, continuing to dole out biscuits with ruthless efficiency. “That’s why they call you Father, Father. Even I forget your name sometimes, Father. Why, not two nights ago I stayed up past nine o’ clock in the evening, just trying to remember it! Now, I said to myself, now – is it Ted? Or is it Gred? Ted, or Gred? Ted, or Gred? Ted? Gred? Ted Crilly? Gred Crilly? Ted, Gred, Ted, Gred, Ted—”
Dougal plucked a Jenga brick from the top layer. “Your turn, Ted.”
“Ah, right you are—Dougal! You took a brick off the top again!”
Dougal wiggled his eyebrows. “So I did,” he said, in a tone of deep cunning. “Psychological warfare, Ted.”
“That is not – look, Dougal, just play properly next time.” Ted began the delicate process of extracting a brick from the very centre of the Jenga tower. “No, it’s for the best that we don’t get onto the programme. I mean, forget about Craggy Island knowing our names! Whatever would our parishioners think, if they saw their very own priests prancing around on the telly like two great lumps?”
“There’s that lovely Father Gred Crilly,” Mrs Doyle said at once. “What a talented man, and such a priest as well! Doesn’t he give good Mass, and doesn’t he suit that cassock well, and do you know, I should like to book him for my funeral already. That’s what they’d say, Father.”
“Thank you, Mrs Doyle,” said Ted – then saw Dougal: tongue between his teeth, carefully lifting a brick from the top of the Jenga tower before dropping it onto his collection. “Dougal! Not the top! Not the top!”
“They’d probably ask you to be in magazines,” Mrs Doyle said reflectively. “Maybe you’d go to America, or Japan, or the mainland. And there’d be temptations, so there would.”
Ted paused, mid-brick extraction. “Temptations? Do you really think?”
“Thousands of them,” Mrs Doyle said firmly. “Filthy, disgusting things. That’s always the way. First the fame, then the temptations, then the depravity and the lechery and the bottle, and then last of all the rot sets in.” She raised her voice: “No offence to present company, Father Hackett.”
“Terrible, terrible...” Ted’s gaze was faraway, his Jenga brick still halfway in its tower. “I don’t suppose you recall any of the, ah – specifics, do you? Of the temptations, that is – whether you might have any details on what, exactly—”
Dougal slammed his hands against the table. “Boo!” he cried, and Ted shrieked, and startled backwards in his chair, and with a great rattling and clattering the Jenga tower tumbled down. “I win! I win! Ah, Ted, what a game! Psychological warfare! What a game!”
“Dougal,” Ted began – and would have continued, and would have grown red-faced in the process, and stridently aerated besides – but the telephone chose that very moment to ring.
“You’ll want to get that, Fathers,” Mrs Doyle said. She stretched her neck and then sunk it back down like a dissatisfied turkey. Her mouth was wrinkled with distaste.
“I know, Mrs Doyle,” said Ted, who was fighting a rising sense of terrible, impotent frustration. He took it out on a scattered litter of Jenga bricks – kicked them vigorously aside, and went to the telephone. “Craggy Island Parochial House, Father Ted Crilly speaking...?”
“The fella who won Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities last year, he’s in rehab now,” Mrs Doyle remarked to the room.
Most of Dougal emerged from under the table, an armful of Jenga bricks cradled awkwardly against his chest. “Is he, now?”
“For doing it,” Mrs Doyle said. “Doing it every hour of every day and with a different lady every time, doing it till his lad got sore and red and peeling, doing it till he wept and asked the Lord to free him from doing it, and still he kept on doing it. Just goes to show, Father.”
“Just goes to show,” Dougal agreed. “Ah, it goes to show! That’s for sure. Goes to show, sure it does. To show what, Mrs Doyle?”
Ted let out a sound of a pitch unheard in the Parochial House since the unforgettable week two years back with Father Seamus Buck-McBuck and the Belgian deliveryman who insisted on wearing a monocle in either eye in place of his varifocals, and the riotous mix-up with Craggy Island Clowning & Acrobatics Circus Academy’s helium shipment that had ensued. “You’re fecking joking – ah, no, I can take a message for himself – oh, you’re fecking joking! No, no, I’m – Dougal! Dougal! Phone for you!”
Dougal bounded to his feet. Jenga bricks showered down around him, and he seized the phone from Ted with enthusiasm. “Hello!”
Mrs Doyle was peering at Ted with a particular squinting scowl that tended to indicate ravening curiosity, but Ted didn’t have it in him to assuage it. He clutched the back of a dining chair and took several deep and whooping breaths, then several more; then began to think, seriously now, about the logistical difficulties the largely eroded port of Craggy Island might be caused by a sudden influx of devoted young fans. With fame came influence, after all; and with influence came power, and with power came a duty to wield that power responsibly – but perhaps the responsibility could begin later. Perhaps there was typically a grace period in these situations, an allowance of time for purely irresponsible use of power—
“See, we tell ‘em it’s Jesus,” Dougal was saying, his hand held over the mouthpiece in a secretive fashion, “but that’s just a big joke, really. It’s actually just a bit of old bread. Right – right, so! Old bread! Right – ah, well, I reckon what a lot of people don’t realise is Jesus actually died ages ago. So if it was really the dead body of Himself, it’d taste terrible. Just terrible. A lot of people don’t think about that, but you wouldn’t eat a bit of pork that was a hundred years old or something, would you? So why should the Baby Jesus be any different, is what I want to know—”
Ted ripped the telephone cord from the wall. “When are you allowed to talk about transubstantiation, Dougal?”
“In the bath when no one’s listening – aw, but Ted—”
“No,” Ted said firmly.
But it was hard to maintain his usual admirably stern-yet-fair demeanour when the news still buzzed through him, when adrenalin was squirting wildly in his heart: Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities! Ah, just to think the name alone – Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities! He and Dougal would need costumes, and stage names, and perhaps dance routines; although first of all he would need to work out a way to incorporate dance into his impressions routine, but that seemed like something he could discuss with his agent. An agent – perhaps he should find an agent? What, exactly, an Agent did was something of which Ted was not too sure; but it couldn’t be hard to find out, and an agent was absolutely the sort of thing an up-and-coming new star of the Irish media scene would need...
Mrs Doyle and Father Jack watched the first episode together, some weeks later. It was not a conversational viewing, but it was a companionable viewing – Mrs Doyle with her tea trolley parked alongside the sofa, so she could set down her empty cup and, without tearing her gaze from the screen, take a fresh cup from the serried ranks she had spent her afternoon preparing – from the serried ranks that stood as sharply to attention and as ready for service as any soldier braced for the martyring; and Father Jack with his bottle of brake fluid, which was the only reason he was anything even like approaching awake at seven past the hour on a Saturday evening. A small pennant flag, made by Dougal, was wedged into the ossified folds of the blanket around his shoulders: GO ON AND WIN NOW FATHERS.
“Oh, I don’t like that,” Mrs Doyle observed, at length. On screen, a border collie jumped through a hoop while classical music played. “Oh, I don’t like that. Oh, no. Oh, no, no.”
“Arse,” said Father Jack, which was language of a sort that Mrs Doyle could not approve, but which was delivered with a hateful vehemence she certainly could. Arse, indeed.
“Oh, what a sight,” Mrs Doyle remarked, some time later. She plucked a fresh martyr from the serried ranks and supped, not averting her eyes for a moment. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no.”
“Arse,” Father Jack insisted.
“Disgusting,” Mrs Doyle concluded, after a while. “The manner of things these people come up with, you wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t. You would not believe the manner of things they come up with. You simply would not. You would not.”
Father Jack said nothing, but his snores shook the armchair. Dougal’s pennant flag fluttered merrily with the tremors. The advert break began, and Mrs Doyle hurried her tea trolley to the kitchen with a musical tinkling of crockery and refilled her serried ranks; she was back in time for the opening jingle of the results, and, ready once more for action, she sank into her comfortably worn furrow in the sofa.
“It’s a fecking outrage! It’s a disgrace, it’s a BEEP disgrace – it’s a BEEP indictment, is what it is, is what it fecking is – this BEEP BEEEEEP country of ours, everyone’s had their brains worn away by watching the telly, it’s telly this and telly that, the only BEEEEEP BEEP BEEP thing that anyone fecking cares about is telly – and no one knows how to recognise art when they see it anymore! That’s what this is about! It’s about art – it’s about BEEEEEEP recognising and appreciating art, and – no, no, I’m not angry. I am not angry! I am not fecking angry, in the name of the fecking Lord above will you stop saying I’m – listen, I’m fecking upset, is what I am – but I’m upset for this fecking country of fecking eejits who haven’t got the eyes in their fecking eejit heads to recognise talent when it’s fecking right there – fecking shining on their fecking telly in their own fecking front rooms—”
“Ladies and gentleman – Father Ted Crilly!” boomed the voiceover.
“—but apart from that, I don’t mind. I don’t mind. Me? Mind? Why would I mind? It’s all about the art for me, that’s the only reason I’m—”
Slowly, slowly, Ted’s monologue faded from the screen.
For the next several weeks, Mrs Doyle and Father Jack were joined by Ted and the vast cloud of bleak, volatile gloom from which he had grown inseparable. The tea trolley was in place; the brake fluid was in place; the pennant flag was not in place, because the day after his return Ted had snapped it in half and then fled shrieking from the house, flinging off his clothes as he went, until he reached the shore and hurled himself still shrieking into the choppy, ice-cold waters – a second baptism, rearing up from the ice water as waves crashed around him, to emerge gasping for breath and born anew – purified by suffering, penitent, a new man now—
He sat beside Mrs Doyle on the sofa wrapped in four blankets, a hot water bottle on his head and his belly and his feet, sniffing piteously. The stack of empty tissue boxes beside the sofa was tall enough it could have been repurposed for a game of man-sized Jenga.
The advert break ended; the show’s tuneful little jingle played. Ted gave a theatrical shudder and crossed himself. When this had no effect, he allowed his eyelids to flutter closed, as though overcome by horrendous recollections playing on loop behind them. When this too had no effect, he reclined his head against the sofa and loudly, woefully remarked, “I don’t want to talk about it, Mrs Doyle.”
Mrs Doyle patted efficiently across her serried ranks and extracted a fresh martyr, eyes fixed unmoving on the screen. “I didn’t ask you to, Father.”
“But if you did,” said Ted. “Then I wouldn’t. I’d have to decline. I couldn’t face talking about my experiences appearing on live telly to an audience of thousands of billions, even if you begged and pleaded with me. Oh, I just couldn’t face it.”
“You’ve nothing to worry about there, Father. Truthfully, I’m not interested at all. If you told me, I wouldn’t listen. If you tied me down against my will and forced me to listen, I wouldn’t do it, Father. I wouldn’t even hear it. I couldn’t care less, Father, and that’s the honest truth. I’ve got no interest whatsoever in hearing about what it’s like to be on the telly, ever, in any way, and that’s that.”
Ted’s next sniff was even more piteous than the last. “I’m just saying, Mrs Doyle – hypothetically, if you did—”
Quite abruptly, Mrs Doyle sat up straight. Or – straighter, at least: her back took on a noticeably less acute angle than usual. “Ah, Father! Will you hush now, Father! Here’s the results, now!”
Dougal fiddled with the microphone attached to his lapel, then fiddled with his lapel, then became transfixed by the brash check pattern on his shirt for several minutes of silence.
Eventually, a voice from off camera prompted, “How are you feeling?”
“Ah, not bad, not bad. Wouldn’t say no to a bite to eat, though. And yourself?”
“Ah, no – about the results. How are you feeling about the results?”
“The results of what, now?”
“Of the show – of you being voted out. How are you feeling about it?”
“What show’s that, now?”
“Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities.”
“Right, so. And what’s happened, again?”
“You’ve been voted out, Father McGuire.”
“Ah, that’s a shame. That’s a pity. Ah, that’s a real pity. Out of what, now?”
“Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities.”
“Ireland’s Got Certain Abilities! Ah, that’s the one with the fishermen! Ah, I’ve heard of that! Here,” Dougal said, leaning blurrily close to the camera, which refocused in time to capture the intimate, confidential look in his suddenly colossal eye, “do you want to know a secret? It’s about some old bread, and the Baby Jesus, and a big old joke that us priests like to play...”
Mrs Doyle, Father Jack, Ted, and Ted’s vast cloud of bleak, volatile gloom were not joined by Dougal the next week, because Dougal was hurtling around somewhere upstairs, playing Sardines with a number of the devoted young fans who had shipped themselves to Craggy Island solely in order to welcome their hero home.
The ruckus of the yelling and the thundering footsteps and the raucous, joyful shrieking was too much to bear. Father Jack put a plunger through the television before the first advert break; when that failed to end the noise, he lurched from his armchair like an Act of God, seized the plunger from the sparking, sizzling wreckage, and went rollicking from the front room with a feral bellow.
His journey up the stairs echoed through the house. There was a moment of silence – and then the yelling and the shrieking resumed, all at once, with a markedly different tenor. The front door slammed open; the back door slammed open; a figure plummeted past the living room window, and the garden filled with unwanted houseguests fleeing desperately for the road.
After a little while, Dougal came trudging dolefully into the front room. He took a seat dolefully at the table; he let his cheek fall dolefully into his hand. ‘IRELAND’S GOT CERTAIN ABILITIES – SEMI-FINALIST’ read his oversized novelty T-shirt, and only with a tremendous effort did Ted fight down the urge to grind his teeth.
“Chin up, Dougal,” Ted managed at last, and gave him a commiserating pat on the shoulder for good measure. “That’s the thing about fame, you know – much more trouble than it’s worth. First everyone cares, and then nobody cares, and they leave you all alone and it’s as though you never were a star at all, though you’ve got that week’s issue of the telly listings with your name mentioned right there on the Saturday reviews page to prove it, if anyone questions it; and at least the memories stay with you, though what good are memories when they can’t buy you yachts?”
Even Dougal’s slippers were doleful, scuffing back and forth on the carpet in the rhythm of a heartbroken metronome. Ted patted him on the shoulder again: reassuring, bracing.
“But that’s fame for you, eh, Dougal? Now – who’s for a game of Jenga?”