Tuesday, December 7, 2021
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A Bag Day

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Briefcase. Def: a leather/faux leather expandable bag held by a single, painful plastic handle in order to transport enormous weights of books. Frequently thrown, flipped or even tossed, resulting in a lifespan significantly  less than the manufacturers’ expectations.

The humble briefcase was a standard piece of equipment in the 1970s. Boys in the first, second and third years of secondary school typically used them, but by thefourth year most of us had forsaken the old-fashioned things in favour of sports bags, usually with ‘Adidas’ emblazoned upon them. They were, as I recall, considered cool.  Even more cool, daddy-oh, were canvas rucksacks with a badly-painted rock band emblem upon the covering flap. Part of their appeal, I think, was that such bags afforded their contents absolutely no protection whatsoever and were a rebellion against all those books we had been forced to cover with wallpaper.

During their short lives, briefcases were terribly mistreated by almost everyone. Usually overloaded and with the lock straining to keep the contents together, they were forever being dropped heavily onto rough, wet or otherwise contaminated surfaces. Often, ‘briefies’ as they were known, were hurled and slid along corridors in the finest curling tradition, and more frequently they were simply thrown into corners or against walls. My personal favourite was to swing the briefcase and use a flick of the wrist at the last second to impart a somersault action. The more rotations I achieved, the better. My record – if memory serves – was a two point five, resulting in a shattered handle which I then had to tape up and hide from my mother for the rest of the year.

One day, my good friend Fergal stole the show. The 1970s was a time of turbulence in the UK. Unrest in, around and about the Northern Ireland situation abounded, and terrorist groups had made a series of murderous strikes on the British mainland in 1975 alone. Living as we did almost within sight of the port city of Liverpool, many of us – myself included – shared Irish heritage, and a high proportion of families bore identifiably Irish surnames: O’Malley, Fitzpatrick, Kelly etc. Fergal was a Fitzmichael. Remember that…

Like me, Fergal always took the bus home. Two seats at the front of the buses had been ripped out to make way for a ‘luggage rack’ which was a good thing because navigating a completely obstructed aisle with a bag was nigh on impossible for small kids like ourselves. One fateful, sunny evening in 1977Fergal stood up to fetch his bag from the luggage rack and step off the bus for the short walk home. With some consternation he found the rack empty. Somebody had taken his bag – either by accident or deliberately. The bus driver, befitting his role as the most grumpy adult of the day, encouraged Fergal to get the hell off his bus and stop bothering him with questions about bloody briefcases. Since he didn’t use any physical force at that point, we must assume that the driver was one of the more enlightened members of his profession.

With nothing more to be done except to have a genuine excuse for not doing his homework, my friend made his way home and explained to his mother what had happened. Following a dubious line of logic, Ferg was sent to his room as punishment for having had his bag stolen from the spot where he was supposed to leave it for safe keeping. It can be a cold, heartless universe at times.

Sitting in his room,vainly waiting for the invention of home computers and/or video games, my friend’s mood was further deepened when the doorbell rang, and after a moment’s muted conversation, he was called by his father. At the front door stood two police officers, looking very severe. As he presented himself, the questions began – almost all of which he was entirely unable to answer. Slowly, however, a picture of the events of the evening emerged, and by the following morninghe was ready with his story for our entertainment.

It wasn’t until we headed to our form room and sat down before Mr. Albert that the entire picture appeared. Once we’d settled down to await the start of our maths lesson, he called out to my friend. “Come here boy!” Fergal dragged his feet to the front. “I think you have some explaining to do, don’t you?” Albert looked fierce, even angry. “Have I, sir?” “YES!! I want you to explain to me why you destroyed school property!” We frowned collectively; this wasn’t going where we thought it might. Ferg began to quiver a little. “I want you to explain…THIS!” yelled the teacher, and from his desk drawer produced approximately one third (or 33.3% if we’re converting fractions) of a maths text book. It was mostly a collection of burned, charred and ripped shreds, only loosely connected to the spine. Albert, his face twitching, reached again into the desk. “NO? Then perhaps THIS will refresh your memory!” and with a flourish he held up the handle of a briefcase, hanging desperately onto which were a few fragments of metal frame and some tattered and charred pieces of plasto-leather.

As we looked on, he burst into laughter. “Come on boy!” he said between giggles, “Don’t you recognize your own briefcase?”

It turned out that someone had indeed – maliciously or otherwise – removed Fergus’ briefcase from the bus in the little town through which we passed on our way home. Then, for reasons that will forever be unclear, he or she deposited the bag against the wall of the post office on the main thoroughfare. In the prevailing political climate, unattended bags always attracted attention. Within a short space of time, a member of the public had reported the suspicious bag, and the police had been called. An attending constable – dressed in the finest protective clothing of the day (a shirt, woollen trousers and, of course, a tie) approached and tentatively opened the clasp to peer inside.

He saw a name: Fergal Fitzmichael.That was enough. Within a short space of time, the local British Army Bomb Disposal Team arrived on the scene. With the potential for disaster looming,roads were closed and nearby premises evacuated.The bomb disposal team rolled out their state-of-the-art robot, designed specifically to deal with explosive devices. The beefy little device on mini tank tracks rumbled across the street and approached the briefcase. It’s manipulator gently opened the bag. Unable to tell what lay inside, and with the circumstances indicating possible terrorist activity, the decision was made to conduct a controlled detonation of the ‘device’.

Armed and dangerous, the little robot returned to the bag with renewed purpose. The machine fiddled about with the bag until suddenly: BA-BOOM! Windows in the Victorian buildings rattled, dogs barked and car alarms didn’t sound…because nobody had one in 1977. A shower of paper fluttered gracefully to earth, along with microscopic remnants ofbriefcase. Fergal’s bag was no more. Actually, that’s not strictly true;its atoms still existed – it was just that they’d been spectacularly rearranged.

As schoolboy stories go, it was as good as it got and for several weeks Fergal wasunderstandably a celebrity throughout the school. Actually, that’s not quite true; his fame lasted years

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