Feature Articles

Hurting God by Rita Ann Higgins

(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2010)

“The changes are going to be great in Baile Crua,”I heard my mother say to a neighbour when they were out pegging clothes. I handed up the pegs. They had the same colours as the hen rings, bright reds and yellows. Shirt after shirt, peg after peg.Red with red, yellow with yellow.

Septic tank talk was all talk and if it wasn’t septic tanks it was County Council talk. The County Council men played cards a lot, they had a flair for it, and while they played they sang in unison “....From a Jack to a King/ from Loneliness to a Wedding Ring....” The county council men were fixers, they fixed everything from a warped wheelbarrow to a broken scullery window. But they were slow and everyone seemed to be waiting for them. Are you going to the dispensary, Missus? No I’m waiting for the County Council to come and fix a leak in my gutter.

My sister made a daisy-chain so long that it went around the twelve cottages twice and its shadow was nearly as long. When she was threading it she squinted one eye like a shooter in the cowboy films. She said a gecko flitted on the back of her daisy-chain, never falling off once all the way round.

None of us could swim yet, but one brother often jumped into the green slimy tank water to catch the tadpoles. The others trapped wasps in jam jars and broke the odd scullery window. Chase games were always better than hopscotch. We were chased and we chased all day long, losing sight of what we were running after or who was running after us. The boys played hurling and football.

A State of Grace was what we all wanted; we didn’t understand it, but we heard it so often that we knew we must have it. I’ll have a State of Grace and chips please. My mother was afraid of drunken doughnuts, especially a falling-down father doughnut who brought the house and the dresser down with him. A holy house is falling down falling down falling down. I am in the bottom of the dresser and afraid is there too. I want to go to the toilet.

Now everyone was talking about the changes. Even the postman said, “Did you see that washing machine in full wallop? All your sins will be washed clean.” This was bungalow time. A nice house for the teacher and the guard, a bungalow for the little bald man who shot the melaka out of cats. The new word for saying over and over. Bungalow, bungalow. Next thing you know the middle house has venetian blinds. Any day now a president will get shot and the mothers of Baile Crua will cry.

All this carry on was hurting God. I knew by the look on my mother’s face. She had a hurting God look, she wore it often. When cousin Patsy came out to visit wearing her black slacks, I knew by the look on my mother’s face that she was hurting God.

God was crucified by bungalows and washing machines, and venetian blinds and by tight slacks on women. We had the Stanley Nine but none of the other God-hurting stuff. But it was our fault, it was my fault. I was guilty.

“Take this note to the Poor Clares. Hold it tight and here is one brother and one sister to walk each side of you to shield you from the devil in case he pops up and offers you venetian blinds or a new bungalow or a washing machine on full cycle. The devil is everywhere, remember that.”

The note said, pray like billy-o for a father’s drinking. A father who fell off the Honda 50 at the gable end was covered in blood. Children scatter, a hailstorm of summer dresses and short pants. I run in to my hiding place in the dresser. Veronica wipes the Honda 50.

At the Poor Clares convent the nuns had a vow of silence, except the nun who would slide back the little net screen. She would take your note, say a few words, all small words, spare the butter words, whispery words with cobwebs. One of us said she had a mouth like a hen’s hole but we were well away from the convent by then. We burst in laughing.

Out there someone was going to shoot a president. The mammies in Baile Crua were getting ready to cry. On your marks, get set, a president is about to die.

The whispering nun was roly-poly and she nearly rolled over my brother. She brought us a holy trinket, a thread from Saint Martin’s underpants. Or a sliver from Padre Pio’s mitten. We didn’t care what we got as long as we got something. If we got nothing it would have been a complete waste of a journey in from Baile Crua. Hail Holy Queen Mother of thirsty, give me a drink and make it hurt me.

“Hold this note in your other hand. When you finish in the Poor Clares, go to Wood Quay and give it to Paddy O’Flynn and he will put the box of groceries into the back of Mr Kane’s van and tell him not to forget the lard or I’ll make lard out of ye. Then ye will go with the groceries and he will bring ye home. And God keep ye safe and protect ye from all harm.”

But first Paddy O’Flynn always gave you a free Turkish Delight bar and one each for your angels and guardians. That was much better than a saint’s relic. With the saint’s relic you made the sign of the cross on your forehead and nothing much happened but with the Turkish Delight, you could dream a whole country up, where people spent the day making a special purple bar for you and your minders.

You could see old men in the back of Paddy O’Flynn’s licking the top of a big glass of porter and saying nothing. Like the nuns, they had taken a vow of silence. Now and then they looked out at the bacon slicer taking skelps off a side of bacon. These were the saddest men in the world, and they were born old with nothing but big grey eyes and purple noses, like a father.

Mr Kane had no face, only the back of a head. A hair-oiled head and two ears. In the back of his delivery van we’d sway back and forth and we’d laugh when the van went over a bump in the road. Mr Kane couldn’t say funny things like a father but he could say things with a soft voice like a nice person. He was a never-learned-how-to-shout person.

The trees move past us and the well moved down the road and Mrs Coyne’s house just floated away and everything in it floated out, and the shoes came out from under the beds and odd socks found their long-lost companions only to lose them again, and ladies’ nylons and corsets were floating and dancing and bread and jam was flying past the window and fried bread dipped in egg and buttermilk and blackberries and hazelnuts, and the butter was beating off the sides of the churn and the bungalows and the venetian blinds were floating and all the new washing machines were on full cycle. I think I said stop, but it might be a lie. God forgive me.

When we got out at our house, I vomited the whole Poor Clares day into my good shoes. By now a president was dead. The mammies of Baile Crua were all crying. I needed the County Council to come and fix things but I knew deep down that a card game was in full swing. I could hear the men sing in unison, “....From a Jack to a King/ From loneliness to a wedding ring….” I knew that I was hurting God and that I would have to pay, sooner or sooner.

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