My father records my transgressions in a large blue ledger with marbled edges. Dropped lumps of coal out of the scuttle whilst taking it to the living room fireplace. Punishment: Six slaps with the leather dog collar. Stealing money from Mam’s purse. Punishment: Fifteen slaps with the leather dog collar. Staring out the window for no reason. Punishment: Banished to my room for the afternoon.
From my bedroom window, Mrs. Prendergast clacks her way up the avenue at exactly half past five every evening on her way home from work. A glorious set of curtains twitch as disappointed husbands try to get a glimpse of her. I can’t take my eyes off her stockings and the way the seams down the back of her legs are so perfect, leading directly to the Gates of Hell. She reaches her front door as I arrive at those burning gates and let out a stifled cry.
Mam says she’s a “brazen hussy,” but the Old Man calls her “hot on her leather,” which must mean something bad, because Mam slaps his hand when he says this. All I know is she gives me the horn and I must lock myself in the toilet and interfere with myself again. I can’t tell the priest at confession about this, but even the sin of omission is a bad one.
The Old Man did two weeks on/two off on the Piper Dunlin oil platform in the North Sea. In his absence Mam wrote down my sins, and the punishment was meted out upon his return from the wilds of Scotland. One afternoon, gale force winds buffeted the oil rig as he daydreamed of Mam’s Yorkshire puddings, and a loose traveling block plummeted from the derrick and crushed his hip into pulp. He had five surgeries in nine months and endured a long steel implant with six stainless steel screws inserted in his thigh. Mam bought an orthopedic bed and transformed our dining room into a makeshift bedroom. For the three months he lay immobile—with a bedsore in the small of his back the size of a fist, my grandfather’s blackthorn cane close at hand—I escaped his blows.
He makes us say the Rosary next to his bed at night. I get the beads from the drawer in the hall table and we say the Confiteor, the Our Father, and a litany of Hail Mary’s to protect the innocent babies in Africa, the hunger strikers in Long Kesh, and Pope John Paul II. When the prayers are over I return the beads to their drawer and go back upstairs to resume my vigil, spying on our neighbors’ house in hope of seeing Mrs. Prendergast at her open bedroom window.
Mam catches me as I fumble with my belt and drags me downstairs to face the music. The Old Man flies into an impotent rage, swings the blackthorn and catches my wrist, knocking me onto the bed. I try to get away, but his grip is ferocious and I’m only able to escape when I accidentally knock against his hip implant. “Curse the day you were born,” he says, and I flee towards the Church of the Three Patrons.
In the dim, candlelit darkness of the confessional box I recite an Our Father and six Hail Mary’s for God’s intercession in ridding me of the Old Man’s cruelty. I add as an afterthought that He destroy the Ledger of Sin in His infinite wisdom. Penance said, I linger under the crucifix at the altar, close my eyes and picture Mrs. Prendergast rolling her stockings down, inch by inch.