Nine-year-old Damian Cunningham and his brother Anthony, a year older, are at a bank in their English town, trying to open an account in which to put a bag-load of money. I mean, a really big bag.
The teller explains that she’ll need an adult signature and some sort of ID card, so Anthony hands her his swimming pool pass.
“You really need to ask your mum to come in.”
“We can’t.” Anthony looked her in the eye and said, “She’s dead.
She looked at him. She looked at me. I tried not to look too sad because I didn’t want to contribute to Anthony’s errors. But it was hard to look actually happy. And then she did what everyone else always did when we mentioned Mum — she gave us something. A euro-shaped money box and two free euros.
It’s a running joke through Frank Cottrell Boyce’s 2004 sweet, poignant and hilarious novel Millions that the two boys routinely mention the death of their mother Maureen as a way to get adults to do something for them.
In this case, it doesn’t quite work, but usually it’s as sure-fire as you can get. Like when they are hungry during a community meeting and want some food from a neighbor, Terry — who gives them two Oreos.
On the way home, Anthony flashed his Oreo at me and said, “Result. Told you. Works every time.”
I said, “Are you sure it’s completely honest?”
“She’s completely dead, isn’t she?”
When I got to that line on page 33 — I was reading the book for the second time — I did the same thing I did back in 2011: I laughed out loud.
I bet you will too if you read the book.
It’s a sort of gallows humor that the boys, mainly Anthony, have developed to cope with the huge sadness and huge gap in their lives.
Damian is prompting concerned looks from many of the adults around him because, in the time since his mother’s death, he has become a font of information about saints.
He’s found a website that provides all the information he could want, and he’s memorized a lot of it and can repeat it in great detail, such as when his 4th grade class is asked to name people they admire.
After a bunch of boys mention football players (i.e., what Americans call soccer players), Damian suggests St. Roch:
“He caught the plague and hid in the wood so he wouldn’t infect anyone, and a dog came and fed him every day….He’s the patron saint of plague, cholera and skin complaints. While alive, he performed many wonders.”
Damian goes on from there, much to the confusion and then chagrin and then worry of his teacher who sends a note home.
Of course, such adult anxiety would be worse if Damian were to mention to anyone that he isn’t just steeped in the knowledge of Catholic saints. As the reader knows early, Damian actually has conversations with saints — mainly about whether they’ve seen his mum in heaven. Late in the story, one saint even steps in to give the boy a head start from a glass-eyed bad guy trying to grab him.
The truth is, there is always a patron saint. As St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) once said to me, “Saints are like TV. They’re everywhere. But you need an aerial.”
At his hermitage
Anthony seems to be better adjusted. After all, he’s not reeling off biographical information, including birth and death dates, for obscure holy people from the past. Instead, he’s gotten to be deeply interested in real estate, so much so that a reader might think someone would notice.
Also, it’s clear that Anthony has a great fear that the boy’s father, like their mother, will abandon them.
This sort of dark grief is woven through Boyce’s novel along with the comedic thread — the mum’s-dead gambit, the saint biographies, and a host of plot twists — so the reader is never only laughing or only amused. There is the pathos of two boys without their mother — and their dad without a wife.
At one point, Damian is outside in the middle of the night, sheltering in his hermitage — a structure he’s made from a bunch of kitchen appliance boxes — and he’s cold and he takes some of his mother’s moisturizer and puts it on the back of his hand.
And he’s wondering if maybe he doesn’t like anymore, stopping himself from such doubts and deciding to say a prayer….
…but all I could think of to say was, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. My mum is dead. Amen.”
Moments later, Damian decides that God has answered his prayer.
That’s because, from the sky, a big bag — “like a leathery toad” — falls and crushes one end of the hermitage. And, when he unzips the zipper, he finds:
Banknotes. Piles and piles of them. Thousands and thousands of pounds. Millions, even.
Well, not exactly millions.
When Anthony and Damian count the notes, they find they have 229,370 British pounds, the equivalent of 323,056 euros.
There’s a catch, though. This money fell from the sky onto Damian’s heritage 17 days before the British pounds will go out of circulation and become waste paper as the United Kingdom switches over to the euro as the national currency.
And, so, the story of Boyce’s Millions is off and running. It’s a fun journey for the reader to take, and one that brings solace to the two boys and their father — and some thirsty people a continent away.
Patrick T. Reardon
NOTE: To read my earlier review of Millions, click here.