Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”
The case of Fagan Mitchell
The heat of the last few days had caused lethargy to descend upon the town and everyone from sinner to saint found it difficult to complete their day without a nap, or a moment or two standing in front of the fridge with the door open. It was only May and the end of the school year seemed a long way off.
Barnabas could find nothing fair about a hot day in May, not when you are confined to the classroom, tortured by the occasional glance through the window onto the playing field. The distant hum of the caretaker’s mower spoke of lazy afternoons lying by the river hooking the occasional minnow. It spoke of making a den in the old oak tree that ruled the copse near to Jim Barlow’s farm and offered the best views of approaching armies. The mower was out of season, it was jumbled up and confused, it didn’t actually mean to say such things. There was, to Barnabas, no justice in the world. Justice didn’t exist outside of the confines of his mind. No amount of physics or philosophy or Greek would ever pin point the justice particle.
He believed, through a process of observation and poor judgement that justice was subjective, not everyone agreed on what was just and what was not. Punishment for example, a reasonable and proportionate response to a misdemeanour or crime was fair enough but not always productive. Sometimes a sympathetic ear is all that’s needed.
His teacher Mr Bison ruled with a heavy hand, he believed in zero tolerance and maximum discipline; sympathy was not a word in Bison’s lexicon. If the discipline failed to have the required effect on the first instalment then deliver it again until it did! In the case of Fagan Mitchell this happened to be every day, sometimes twice.
There were several tiers of punishment available to the disobedient child ranging from a slap on the back of the head, all the way up to a severe spanking. Fagan generally migrated straight to spanking, no point in wasting energy on anything less effective.
Bison’s weapon of choice was a rather tatty innocuous slipper, something that the dog might have adopted as his own. Even so the slipper, as chewed up as it might have been, was not to be trifled with. It may have appeared to be old and tired but the truth was it had immense power and a lasting sting.
The slipper was named after the legendary Lady Betty. Lady Betty, as the story went, received a stranger at her door one night. Betty, who’s only remaining son had sailed to America for a better life, lived a sparse existence, in a cabin on the outskirts of Roscommon, Ireland. The stranger sought a bed for the night and while the man slept Lady Betty plunged a dagger into his heart and then robbed his corpse. While she went through his papers she realised, to her horror, that she had in fact just murdered her only son.
It gets better.
She was sentenced to death but on the day of her hanging the executioner was Ill. Sore throat apparently! It was to be a group hanging that morning, a real crowd pleaser; people had travelled for days to see this spectacle. Seeing not only a disappointed mob but also an opportunity, Lady Betty, in exchange for her own neck offered to execute the others condemned to die that day; bless. And so she did. Not only that but, as she had done such an enthusiastic job, she continued to execute inmates at the prison for many years to follow. Lady Betty loved to hang people; she also, as a side line, took up flogging people professionally. Now, you may ask, where is the justice in that? There simply isn’t any, Betty enjoyed her new career and she was later pardoned by the court for killing her son.
Fagan either had a hide of steel or some bizarre love affair with Lady Betty because, without fail the skinny, be-speckled son of the local drunk bent over the teacher’s desk and received his fate every morning. Barnabas and the other children had become rather too familiar with the tucks and folds of Fagan’s backside. If Fagan’s arse ever committed a crime Barnabas was sure that he would be able to pick it out of a line up.
Barnabas had developed the notion that Bison had lost the battle with Fagan and that if the teacher wanted to claw back some dignity let alone authority he must come up with a new strategy. Physical punishment clearly did not work on a boy like Fagan and in fact if anyone was demonstrating signs of defeat it was Bison not Fagan. Fagan it seemed could carry on with his defiance indefinitely whereas for Bison it was a stubborn pursuit of everything he believed in. If Bison capitulated it would mean that his principles were worthless, he would have to rethink everything; the notion that he might be wrong in his approach to life was, Barnabas mused, too much to bear.
Justice may not have existed outside of his head but inside it ruled. Justice, or the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong was, he thought, his super power.
Some people saw injustice as something personal; it only applied to them, but failed to see the reality that others suffered too. Barnabas noticed that for some it was fine to be a victim of injustice and at the same time inflict prejudice on others! Despite not being able to pin justice down, dismantle it and poke it with a stick Barnabas had, nevertheless, a strong sense of integrity.
At school he defended weaker, smaller children from bullies, sometimes he emerged as the victor and other times he’d be left hanging from a coat hook. Not too long ago two twins arrived at the school from Zimbabwe, they were sisters, both small, both shy and both lost in a strange land. Black people were few and far between in those days and so their arrival made quite an impression on the other kids. During mid morning break Barnabas intervened when he discovered the twins cornered in the courtyard by a group of spiteful children. The children taunted the girls about their dress, their hair and their shoes but to his surprise the twins lashed out at him! It seemed that bad attention was better than no attention and that there was no justice in justice.
On another occasion he found a group of older boys by the long jump, they had buried a crow up to its neck in the sand and were taking turns in trying to kick its head off. Barnabas tried to save the crow by applying the kind of logic that was supposed to make the thugs feel shame, but ended up being buried to his waste in sand; next to the crow. The would be decapitators took turns kicking him in the ribs and back until he passed out.
There were, he had to admit, more defeats than victories but every intervention made him stronger, gave him a sense of self that the bible denied him.
It is highly possible that Barnabas’s strict Methodist upbringing contributed to his notions of righteousness. By the age of ten his bookshelf boasted the sum total of seven books, six were various additions of the King James Bible, and the other was the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Barnabas, who was studious, introvert, despite moments of impulsive intervention, and a boy who had been brow beaten into restraint loved Tom Sawyer. If a young boy needed a manual on how to be a boy then Tom Sawyer was it. If an adult, someone as pious as his father or as bitter as Mr Bison needed a reminder of what it was like to be a boy then Tom Sawyer was it. Tom had the nerve to dream, to play and lead a life of adventure, whether that happened to be real or not.
His father, a Methodist minister, frowned upon Mark Twain’s presence on the shelf, thought he had the power to corrupt the other inhabitants. Barnabas’s mother had, for once, put her foot down and made sure his father’s disapproval was not voiced; his frown she could do nothing about.
Being Methodist came with assurances, all of which were attainable through rigorous prayer and bible study. Some things were certain in life; we are all, for example, born with original sin, its smeared all over us from birth. Sin is inherent, a condition of man and there is nothing to be done about it. The condition was handed down from Adam but, and this is important to remember, we can all be saved, even people like Barnabas’s older brother Abraham who had been seduced by Beelzebub and weed, were still in with a chance. Even Bison, as it turns out.
We can also know when we are saved –this would indicate some sort of sign- perhaps some inexplicable revelation or meeting with Christ, and we can, through prayer and methodical biblical study be saved completely, one hundred percent. Christian perfection was the end game, it’s what you dedicated your life too, dodging sin and temptation as you went and the best way to avoid sin and temptation was to bury yourself in one of your six bibles.
Barnabas struggled with the cruelty of the Old Testament and it wasn’t so much the great sweeping genocides such as the wholesale slaughter of Egyptian babies or the plagues, but the small horrors. David and Bathsheba’s adultery ended in God having all of David’s wives raped before his eyes by none other than his own son and then, if this was not enough, the offspring of this dalliance slowly tortured. David’s reaction to this cruelty was no better, a bit of penitence in the house of the lord, a quick bath and then a night out on the town! What was the point? What lessons had been learnt in punishing everyone but David himself who, truth be told, was a bit of a self righteous knob!
The New Testament was sold as something different, wrapped in compassion, joy and love. God was now forgiving and fatherly, his years of violence, murder, racism and rape were behind him, he’d grown up, become gentle and kind and yet, if one should read between the lines it is obviously a hoax. God’s son Jesus was no saint either, although that’s how he was portrayed in Sunday school. ‘Jesus loves us unconditionally’ they said. Well not really, Barnabas, unlike many of the other kids had read the bible umpteen times and tenfold.
Jesus was OK as long as you loved him above your own mother. In fact he blatantly encouraged those that followed him around like he was the bloody Messiah, to forget their families and devote themselves completely to him. Jesus was a chip off the old block, but rather than carry out the punishment, he encouraged his followers to punish themselves. If you look at a woman with a lustful eye, gorge the offending eye out, or better still cut off your genitals, best to be on the safe side after all.
In short, over time, Barnabas began to distance himself from God, they had little in common.
God it seemed had other ideas.
Now, as Barnabas sat in class, his body numb with fear and indecision, neither flight nor fight seemed a possible option, the hair on his neck prickling as his mind went strangely cold; the teacher caught his eye.
Mr Bison looked desperate; Barnabas could tell that Bison’s options were compromised by the gun now hovering inches from his face. His teacher’s plea for help, however fleeting, directed itself towards Barnabas because Bison believed that Barnabas had some sort of communion with God. That in some way the minister’s son had a spiritual union with God and could, if he so wished, perform a miracle.
A week earlier Bison had lost his temper again and picked Fagan Mitchell up by the throat and pinned him against the blackboard. Fagan’s feet dangled in mid air, his body limp like a rag doll. Bison’s face turned red as Fagan’s turned purple. When Barnabas could see that Fagan was about to pass out he got to his feet, walked over to his teacher and gently put his hand on Bison’s arm. Years later Bison would tell people that as soon as Barnabas placed his hand upon his arm, ‘it was like the kid was a messenger of Christ’ and he felt the power of the lord rush through his veins. Seems that Bison had his revelation; he knew the moment of his salvation.
Fagan, it had to be said, was a strange boy; he detested authority, would have no truck with rules and always wanted the last word. Fagan pretty much did what Fagan wanted to do; no one seemed to be able to reel him in. Every morning Bison would call the register and when he got to Fagan a small pre-emptive twitch occurred in the corner of his eye. ‘Fagan Mitchell?’ barked the teacher.
‘Not present’ answered Fagan Mitchell.
Every morning Fagan was dragged to the front of the class, his trousers lowered and his arse spanked with Lady Betty until Bison could spank no more. Fagan grinning inanely would return to his seat, Bison would collapse in his chair, red in the face, out of breath and rather dishevelled.
‘Why?’ pleaded Barnabas one Saturday afternoon while looking for treasure in the woods.
‘Cos I won’t give into him, sides it would probably kill him if I just started to behave like he wants me to’ said Fagan while studying a tree stump with great intent.
‘But don’t it hurt like mad’ pleaded Barnabas who had never received so much as a rap on the knuckles.
‘Ah you get used to it, besides it’s just over a silly joke, so why lose your temper and half kill a boy every day of the week over a silly joke. No I’ll carry on getting whacked if it bothers him so much to hear a joke’.
‘Doesn’t it make you sad Fagan, to be whacked that way every day?’ I think it would make me too depressed.’
Fagan gave up on the tree stump deciding that it was unlikely to hold a hoard of stolen treasure and began to favour the shadow of an elm tree cast at noon.
‘Too right it makes me depressed, but not for the reasons you are thinking of, I’m used to it, besides my Dad is pretty generous with his fists when he’s had too much whisky. No it saddens me to think that old Bison takes so much offence at something so small you could hardly see it. Compared to all the wrong things people do to one another, a little cheek is microscopic, that’s the word I’m looking for, microscopic.
Fagan had become Barnabas’s Huckleberry Finn, the boy that parents forbade their children to play with, the outcast and son of the local drunk. Fagan had been tainted by his father’s reputation and judged to have an unsalvageable soul. Fagan’s incommunicado dealt the boy a poor hand but also gave him an autonomy most boys his age never had.
Barnabas’s father had made it quite clear that his son was not allowed to play with Fagan because he had the terrible misfortune to be born into such an intolerable family. Hope in Salvation for this urchin was a long shot and if the minister was a betting man, which of course he was not, he’d put money on the lad going to hell. ‘An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and if you look at the tree it’s nothing more than a lopsided, drunken crab tree’.
This remark led Barnabas to question his father’s logic, which was never a good idea but in this instance his sense of justice took command of the situation before he had time to think.
‘What of salvation and doing good unto others, that’s what you teach isn’t it?’
The Minister did not approve of his son’s tone but felt obliged to make himself totally understood. ‘Salvation is available to all of us, even Mr Mitchell but it is, is it not, a matter of choice, one can chose to be saved as easy as one can chose not to be saved. I’ve been in this business long enough to tell the difference between the dammed and the salvageable my boy. Yes you are right we should look out for those less fortunate than us, we are lucky, we are already on the road to forgiveness and ultimate salvation. But with some folk like Fagan and his kin it’s best we tackle them as a community, as a body not as a personal project. They have the power to corrupt even the staunchest believer Barnabas and I can’t risk having another son dragged down into the quagmire because it’s a long and lonesome climb out of the abyss.’
The two boys played together nonetheless, but had to arrange secretly when and where they would meet up. This just made it all the more exciting, like one of Tom Sawyer’s adventures. Fagan, and not by design, had earned himself a kind of hero status amongst the other boys, he was not only defiant in the face of Bison’s tyranny but an independent spirit. He stood for rebellious, eccentric, nonconformists everywhere; that said, Barnabas reckoned that Fagan was probably unaware he stood for anything, Fagan was just Fagan.
In Church on Sundays Fagan sat at the front with his father, a man that stayed sober long enough to see out the sermon. Barnabas’s father would be reading from his pulpit, ‘Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.’
Fagan, to the Minister’s constant annoyance would inevitably interrupt, shouting out questions in front of a full congregation. ‘If it was like finding heaven why did he not share it with everyone else? He doesn’t deserve to find the treasure, all he thinks about is himself, he’s just selfish.’
‘Yes thank you Fagan’ the minister would reply through gritted teeth, ‘as I have said on countless occasions keep your questions for bible class.’
Now it seemed that Fagan would never bother anyone again. Earlier that day Mr Bison solemnly explained to the class that Fagan had died in a tragic accident; an accident of biblical proportions.
Due to Fagan’s discontent with authority and, it would seem, Mr Bison in particular, he’d decided to skip class and go fishing instead. Something he was apt to do often. Only when Fagan arrived at the river, the river had run dry. Rather than turn back home, or god forbid go to school, the young boy with the spirit of adventure climbed down into the thirsty river bed. While he looked for treasure, turning over stones and sticks, two miles upstream an accidental dam burst. Water from a downpour earlier that morning had first trickled then flowed from dry ground into streams and gullies. The water met and congregated at a point in the river that was blocked by a fallen tree, the congregation grew and its strength intensified until the tree could hold it back no more. As the water burst through the dam Fagan wrote his name with a stick in the dust. A few moments later Fagan, along with his name were erased. His body washed up on a river bank several miles downriver and was stumbled upon by an old lady out walking her poodle.
The minister made a big song and dance about God’s mysterious ways and how this sad story should be a lesson to all children with plans of disobedience. Barnabas thought it was just a very tragic accident and his father’s barely suppressed glee at an apparent act of God, unjustified and cruel.
Mr Mitchell had burst through the door half way through trigonometry, which at first seemed to be a welcomed distraction by all, until the gun came out. He went straight for Bison, waving his gun in the teacher’s face and shouting drunkenly about revenge and punishment and justice for his boy. Old Bison looked furious, ‘How dare you come barging in here, making threats and talking utter nonsense, this is a classroom not one of your seedy, low life bars?’ said Bison, trying to keep control. Barnabas had a fleeting image of Mr Bison spanking Mr Mitchell with Lady Betty. The bereaved father bent over the desk, his pale, bony arse winking at them as the sun shone through the window and Betty raining down blow after blow. He shook his head to dislodge the image.
Mr Mitchell seemed to sober up a bit then, he stood up straight, proud, before leaning into Bison, really up close and said, ‘I’d shut the fuck up now if I were you Sir’ and with that he spat in the teacher’s face. Bison could hardly contain his rage, no one spoke to him like that ever, it was his role in life to be the bully, the aggressor, the communicator of violence, the deliverer of shame! Who was this drunken upstart, this whisky soaked guttersnipe with bad breath and black teeth? Who the hell did he think he was, coming in here and trying to overthrow his command? Even so, whatever went through Bison’s head now stayed there, he seemed to shrivel up, shrink before them, so that he became no more than a man, not a God –or a demon – not some overwhelming, unmoving force of nature, just a normal, fragile being. He was still mad but predominantly he was scared. He needed to be rational in the face of such volatility and absurdity, he needed to remain calm, lucid and realistic; he needed a miracle.
Barnabas’s father made a point of telling children that if they ever found themselves in a peculiar position they should ask themselves ‘What would Jesus do?’ After which, apparently, all would be made clear.
Barnabas thought about it but concluded that Jesus would probably see this moment as an opportunity to promote himself as Messiah. He would maybe enter into one of his parables, boring the gunman into either shooting himself, Jesus or the teacher. Jesus could perform miracles least we forget so maybe he’d lead everyone down to the river and resurrect Fagan, snatching the poor little beggar from the claws of Hell’s flesh eating demons. Now that, Barnabas thought, he would like to see.
Now Barnabas wondered what the right thing to do was, it was all very well looking to others for guidance, but when push comes to shove don’t most of us do what we think is right. Or do we just tell ourselves that something is black when it is clearly white just to avoid difficult decisions?
Jesus did what he thought was right, it may appear to be a little eccentric to say the least but he only followed his heart and, to be fair it cost him his life. Barnabas, although it would be years before he ever voiced it, thought that Jesus was totally insane. On the other hand billions of people around the world for two thousand years have lain down before him. Others of course have committed immeasurable atrocities in his name. No one has ever committed any atrocities in the name of Tom Sawyer as far as he was aware.
At the end of the day he only had to ask himself one question and it was this, ‘What would Barnabas do?’ That’s all that really mattered, he had to live with himself and he had to live with his own decisions. To be true to oneself meant judging yourself more than anyone else. ‘What would I do?’ Not ‘what should I do’ because ‘should’ implies responding to expectation, religious or social pressure; it’s not as easy as one thinks. He must be his own keeper, his own judge and his own executioner.
So what would Barnabas do?
He looked around at the other kids in the class, they looked as stunned as he felt, and he wondered if any of them had similar thoughts going on in their minds. Would perhaps some other kid attempt to save the day before he, Barnabas, decided to respond to Bison’s pitiful plea?
He glanced at Fagan’s empty chair, poor Fagan, what would Fagan have done, the stubborn, independent kid with an enquiring mind and apparent immunity to pain or shame. Fagan would probably be totally unaware of the apparent danger and start a dialogue on hand guns and pistols.
Barnabas concentrated his mind because that’s what Barnabas did. If you are born with the gift of judgement it’s a heavy mantle to carry, it comes with great responsibility. Deciding what is Just and what is fair takes thought, observation and deliberation. Barnabas needed to weigh things up; to make a decision based purely on reason.
Perhaps, for example, he needed to consider if it wasn’t unfair for Mr Mitchell to kill Mr Bison. Maybe it was fair, maybe the old goat with the keen temper deserved to die. God only knows he’d caused poor old Fagan enough grief in his time not to mention the rest of them. Why not give a grieving father the chance to reap revenge on the man who, for all intense and purposes drove his son out of the classroom and into a flash flood. One dead teacher didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. And what of Mr Mitchell, he would go to prison happy in the knowledge that he had done the right thing for his boy in the end.
The truth is that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t rained that morning, if the ground had not been so dry as to cause a flash flood. Fagan wasn’t messed up; Fagan was probably the most rounded person Barnabas ever knew. So there was no point blaming anyone for Fagan’s behaviour other than Fagan himself. Fagan never demonstrated anything other than self assurance and an ease within his own skin. Fagan did what Fagan wanted to do and was happy with the choices that he made; he was not an unhappy boy.
Barnabas glanced outside, how did he end up in here and not out there?
Barnabas, with a heavy heart stood up.
He walked quietly over to Fagan’s Father and placed his hand upon his arm.
Mr Mitchell looked at Barnabas with confusion, like he hadn’t realised where he was.
‘I’m Barnabas the minister’s son, do you remember me?’
Mr Mitchell nodded his head.
Yes of course Barnabas, you are always very polite and kind towards me and Fagan’.
‘Mr Mitchell, let me show you where Fagan sat’ said Barnabas pointing towards the empty chair.
Mr Mitchell nodded; he seemed to be in some sort of trance now, like he was in a dream that had just taken an unexpected turn. He had no control over the dream and put his fate into the hands of Barnabas.
‘If you just hand me that gun first, we wouldn’t want an accident would we’ Said Barnabas as calmly and as matter of fact as he could. He must have conveyed some sort of authority because Mr Mitchell surrendered his gun. With the gun now in his hand, Barnabas felt a rush of power he’d never experienced before. He was in charge of the situation and could, for as long as he held the gun, dictate the outcome. He wondered if justice was decided ultimately by the man with the gun, with the atomic bomb up his sleeve or, as the law decrees by a body with no invested interest in the outcome. Maybe, despite everything, it is all down to providence or karma, some kismet energy that ripples in an unseen dimension, arbitrating, judging us and our actions and dealing out retribution in this life or the next?
Barnabas didn’t really have time for philosophy he just followed his heart and his instinct, he would not, in the end, decide the fate of any man, but nor could he just stand by and watch one man harm or harass another.
Mr Bison quietly told the other children to, ‘run along now’ and as he wiped the spit from his face they respectfully left the classroom as quickly as they could. Meanwhile Barnabas led Fagan’s father to his son’s desk and asked him to sit down. Now that all the other children had left the room Mr Bison told Barnabas to leave him and Mr Mitchell alone together and to hand over the gun. ‘I have it from here’ he told Barnabas with something that might have been a smile.
Barnabas obeyed, because that’s what Barnabas did. Once he had closed the classroom door he let out a long sigh of relief. He’d done the right thing, Mr Mitchell would probably never have used the gun anyway, he was just in shock. Now that there was no danger he must leave the matter to Mr Bison…Barnabas had taken three steps when the gun went off.
The day began to cool.