I have been thinking lately about the whole process of rewriting and editing as I chip away at a second book and still find myself working at sections that I know will probably have to come out in the final edit. I make my peace with this by thinking of scaffolding that allows me to build the rest of it and then gets taken away but without which I could never do the job. This is one such piece, a bit that was in a way too much fun to write and it took me ages and some excellent editorial advice to see that it told nothing that moved the story and was literally and figuratively a diversion. How true is the find your favorite bits and cut them maxim? My experience is: fairly true.
Anyway here is a little glance at where the mysterious guild-like Janitors (who by tradition must all conform to the X McX naming convention) come from. The Oratory has just collapsed and the janitor has quit. Here beginneth the outtake:
The Monday after the Christmas holidays Dermot McDermott didn’t turn up and sent his youngest son with a note to say he would not be coming to the school any more because they were moving to Drogheda. Now the task of repairing the Oratory ceiling would fall to Ray McRae. It had been photographed, mapped and measured to bits by Fathers Cronin and Mulcahy before they went on their way with a promise to Brother Loughlin that they too would be “in touch.”
“Do you think you can manage it, Mr. McRae?” cooed Brother Loughlin. “After all, you’re the janitor now, it’s a big move up for you. A fine start to the New Year, eh?”
“You’re the janitor now.” The words sang themselves joyously inside McRae’s head. This was a big step. This was the beginning and it was a good beginning. In only two months he had gone from janitor’s apprentice to janitor. He could already feel the chafing rub of a National Gallery Attendant’s green serge jacket on the back of his neck. Unlike most apprentices, McRae was not a young man. Most apprentices were in their late teens but McRae had just turned thirty-eight. After many years in the Department of Transport, with special responsibility for hump-backed bridges, he had decided to change his life. He had a dream. He was going to be an attendant in the National Gallery. He knew it was too big a leap to make immediately, so he was going at it via janitorial work, hopefully leading to Park Attendant and, with a lot of work and application, on to custodian of engravings at the Municipal Transport Museum and then to Attendant at the Museum of Natural History and finally to Attendant at the National Gallery. He stared at the gaping hole in the ceiling, seeing in it the portal to the Dutch Masters room.
“Of course you’ll need an apprentice or two to help you with this. It’s a big job, even for a senior janitor. You should get on to the Brannigan Brothers and see what they can do in the line of apprentices,” added Brother Loughlin skillfully. He could read McRae’s thoughts by the light streaming from his eyes. Here was a little man with ambition. There was nothing easier to mold and direct. Brother Loughlin patted McRae fraternally on the back and walked away whistling a joyous little tune celebrating the removal of the noisome presence of Dermot McDermott from his school. It was a good start to the New Year.
Ray McRae cycled into the yard of Brannigan Brothers Amalgamated Services. He parked his bike behind the horse trough filled with stagnant water, slime and pigeon droppings and entered the austere redbrick Victorian building. It had the unmistakable look of something that had once been either a mill or a mental asylum. He walked up the shallow steps and into the draughty vestibule.
With the new-found aplomb of a senior janitor he pinged the little brass bell that sat on the ledge at the hatch marked “Inquiries” and waited to be danced attendance upon as befitted a man of his station.
He counted to thirty and still there was no sign of movement among the shelves of files and boxes beyond the hatch. He raised his hand to ping the bell again.
“You touch that bell again and I’ll have yer guts for garters!” hacked an ageless sexless voice from somewhere in the labyrinth of towering files beyond the hatch.
McRae cautiously pulled his hand back from the bell and put it in his pocket where he figured it would not get him shouted at. He tiptoed to the other side of the vestibule and eyed the notices in the glass case. Public Meeting to discuss the struggle for equal shoe leather allowances for bicycle messengers. Hospital Porter, Grade II, Open Examinations, application date three months passed. Confederated Nightwatchmen’s Annual Snooker Tournament, Mondays, Dillon’s of Lower Crimea Street, South. International Brotherhood of Boiler Repairmen, outing to Greystones, Sunday 14th. Ha! They had it good, those boiler repairmen, thought McRae, held the country to ransom they did!
His musings on the unfettered political power of organized boiler repair were interrupted by a disturbance in the file room behind him.
From the depths of the office behind the hatch came an unholy racket. First a rasping coughing that sounded like someone throwing rocks into a shipwrecked trawler followed by a flurry of wheezing curses. When the wheezing and swearing subsided, there was a short pause and then an intermittent scraping of leather and nails on stone interspersed with hoarse exhortations of “Come, leg, or I’ll drag ye!”
McRae went to the hatch and peered down the narrow passage between the files that was all he could see through the narrow hatch. The wheezing, cursing and scraping grew louder and McRae felt himself involuntarily draw back a little from the hatch. He steadied himself. After all, he was a senior janitor now and well able to face the world.
The cursing and scraping drew closer, so close that McRae felt sure he should be able to see whoever or whatever was responsible for it. He strained and leaned into the hatch and peered to his left down a narrow passage between the wall and the filing shelves. Nothing. But the scraping seemed to be all around him now. He turned to his right and jumped back so hard that he banged his head off the side of the hatch.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he exclaimed.
“You can take yourself and your fucking filthy language out of here, if you’re going to talk like that!” barked the old woman in the black serge dress favored of those who had got their posts in life through their contributions, real or alleged, to the 1916 Easter Rising.
McRae recoiled before this hoarse embodiment of superannuation and confrontation. She glowered at him, making it very clear that she had much better things to do than attend to him. “What do you want?” she snapped.
“I need a couple of apprentices.”
She sighed resignedly to convey that everything was exactly as she expected: some piffling nobody with some insignificant request to waste her time.
“You’ll only get one. Fill these out and go up to the third floor. Room D9.” She smacked a yellow, a blue, a pink and a white form down on the ledge and slammed down the shutter on her hatch just missing McRae’s fingers.
Ray McRae walked proudly past Hangman’s Corner on his way back to the school. He listened to the precise well-oiled ticking of his bicycle behind him and pictured with delight the inspiration he must be providing for those around him: the revered Senior Janitor of Greater Little Werburgh Street, North being followed at a respectful distance by his new apprentice dutifully wheeling his new master’s bicycle. He felt ennobled by taking an apprentice out of the yard full of apprentice janitors, welders, boiler repair men and the like all standing around the vast interior quad of the building every day like convicts, waiting to be assigned. After all, it was not all that long ago that he spent interminable day after interminable day standing in that yard with the other apprentices waiting for the call.
Gonagle McGonagle (his real name was Dermot Rohan but he badly needed the janitoring work) had other ideas at that very minute. The ticking of the bicycle’s back wheel reflected the speedy calculations in his head: if he were to hop on the bike right now and pedal away, would he get away with it and, if he did, how much would he get for the bike and would that compensate for being debarred forever from Brannigan Brothers’ operations? Sadly he realized that even with the patent-pending Brindley-Cromwell three-speed mechanism, the bicycle would not fetch nearly enough to compensate for his trouble in stealing it. He resigned himself to being apprenticed to this total fool McRae.
“Don’t slouch along like that back there! It’s bad for the school’s reputation and it’s bad for your kidneys as well. Posture is very important. A young lad like you should take care of his posture. You don’t want to be a martyr to your back like my good Father, God rest him. Could barely get out of the bed in the mornings.”
Gonagle McGonagle straightened up a little but began to scuff his heels in compensation. McRae continued on in an orthopedic vein.
“Nearly everything comes down to the back. Lumbago, now that’s a terrible curse. You should be very careful about sitting on damp walls, terrible for giving you lumbago that, not to mention the piles but of course them lads is a whole other days work…”
McGonagle wondered if he would not be better off back waiting in the stultifying tedium of the yard with the others than here listening to this idiot blabbering on at him.