Tower of Words


New short fiction by Han Adcock.

 

The confessional is dim and dust-patterned. Someone has left a skirl of leaves on the planks of the floor, golden and brown from the autumn outside. There have been bonfires already, and the smoked-sausage aroma of them mixes with the holy-sawdust smell in Mattie’s nostrils.

He runs trembling fingers through his hair, numbed by nerves and the cold afternoon, and probes the teeth on the left side of his mouth with his tongue. They ache. There is a hole there.

The holes in the lattice to his left are dull and silent, but he hears the priest breathing.

“Bless me Father. I have sinned.” The words are written on his mind by rote, though it has been years since he last uttered them.

“Yes, my son?”

Mattie bites down the retort gathering under his tongue, ‘you’re not my father,’ and wonders where to begin. His father and his teacher on the sofa? He has a tower of words inside him and if they are spoken, everything will topple.

“Actually, um. I’ve not confessed for a while.”

“It is never too late to settle your conscience with the Holy Spirit.”

 

His Da stands swaying in the front hall, struggling to shuck off his jacket. He is dripping with rainwater and saturated with beer. Mattie can smell it on him. It permeates the air in the house.

“Hullo, sonny.” This strange man who was dour and sensible when he left for work that morning smiles at Mattie, revealing the dentures in a red, sloppy mouth. “You goin’ to give yer old man a cuddle, then?”

Mattie looks down at his knees poking out of his short trousers. They are always grazed when he gets home from school, and his mother slaps iodine on them until his eyes water, but asks nothing. Nobody asks how he gets them. Perhaps this time, while his Da is still happy, he can tell him what happened, how the boys in the sixth year pushed him over in the yard and kept on shoving, not letting him up on his feet again; the name-calling. Maybe this time his Da will not be angry at him or his mother, will storm out with a righteous indignation and confront the older boys instead. They will probably be down some alley somewhere now, up a drainpipe spying on girls getting undressed, but perhaps later, when they will be at home.

Mattie approaches his Da and obediently wraps his arms over the back of his neck. He knows not to kiss his father. That is what a girl would do, and it would earn him a slap.

“Da,” he tries. “At school today, some lads…”

His Da straightens.

“GWEN!” he bellows, and Mattie hangs off his Da’s neck, forgotten.

“Gwen! Darlin’ you would never believe it. Jaysus, I lost on the horses. Ten bob. Where’s me dinner?”

“I kept it warm for yis in the oven. Didn’ know what time ye’d be back.”

“It’d better not be incinerated, woman.” He looks down at his son and frowns. Mattie is quick to let go. “Right, ye’ve seen your old Da, now off to bed with yis. Ye’ve got school in the morning and yer mother’s tired.”

“Da,” Mattie tries again, although he knows that he is pushing it, “at school–”

“Get upstairs!”

Mattie does as he is told. He closes the bedroom door quietly on the raised voices below and gets into his pyjamas. He mutters the Our Father in a long stream under his breath, not understanding all the words but knowing God can hear, somewhere. It is like a magic spell. He can feel the vast presence listening as he gets into bed. The sheets are cold and damp, but he is exhausted.

‘Please,’ he whispers in the chill. ‘I think you do know what’s going on. Help me. Help me be stronger.’ He goes to church every Sunday with his mother. It can’t be too high a reward to ask for.

Ten minutes later his Da’s voice ricochets up the stairs.

“MATT. Get yerself down here. I want a word.”

Mattie goes colder. He forces his body to unclench and gets up, goes out onto the landing.

“What is it, Da?”

“Just get yer arse down here.” This is the turning-point between happy Da and angry Da that Mattie dreads.

He stands on the living-room rug in silence, waiting for his Da to talk. His Da smokes, ignoring his mother, who is white and somehow tiny on the settee, shrunk into the crook where the armrest joins onto the back of it. A livid red mark burns below her eye. It will be sore and black in the morning.

“Y’mother told me about those,” his Da says, waving impatiently at the scabs on his knees. “What have yer been doin’ to get so roughed up? Eh?”

“Nothing, Da. The boys at school knocked me over.”

“If yer gonna come home bleedin’ and carryin’ on, patch yerself up first. She told me how you came snivellin’ up to the front door. I don’t want the neighbours seein’ yis like that. Act like a man.”

Mattie does not know how. He is only eight. He tries to justify himself.

“But Da, they kept on pushing me. I couldn’t stop ’em. They said I was an eejit. They called me poofter.” His voice cracks.

“Know why? Y’ too gentle, son. Too weak. Y’ fight back, they’ll think twice. Fight back next time, y’ hear me?”

“They’re older than me!”

“That never stopped me when I was yer age. Lad like you oughta be standin’ up for himself, maybe playin’ somethin’ like rugger or hurley. Rugger was the makin’ of me. Instead y’ sit in the corner of the yard drawin’ pretty pictures like some lass. Jimmy’s da told me about yis down the pub. No wonder y’ get knocked down. Hell, they’re probably playing with yis and y’ just don’t recognise it!”

Mattie’s shoulders hitch. He rubs his eyes. Moisture is gathering in them, and his Da mustn’t see.

“I catch yis piddlin’ about drawin’ flowers,” his Da says, “and ye’ll feel the blunt end of my slipper. Y’ unnerstand me? Are you bawlin?”

Mattie shakes his head very hard. No, lie, he mustn’t know. Don’t let him see.

Strong, rough fingers dig into his shoulders and start to shake him. Everything blurs and reels. “Stop that. Stop that silly wailin’, yer not a wee babby. You hear? Stop that.”

 

Mattie is fourteen. He has learned how to put on a hardened front, how to glower and spit in the street and swear. Inside he still trembles, suppressed, and releases what is pent-up secretly onto paper, or in his art lessons.

Miss O’Toole leans over his shoulder and looks at his pen and ink drawing. It is a dragon. The dragon of his mind is always there slavering and wanting to tear his father into little pieces and bear his mother to safety. The scent of Miss O’ Toole wafts into his face and he cannot help but smile. It is a warm, friendly smell, and Miss O’ Toole is warm and friendly. So is his new school. It welcomes both genders and all religions. There is no divide between Catholics and Proddies inside the school gates. There are no nuns waiting for a careless mistake, ready to smack with a ruler. There is no tolerance towards violence. And Miss O’ Toole likes his drawings. She has entered him into a competition for gifted artists.

“That’s very good,” she laughs. “It looks a little like me.”

Mattie blushes. Talk in the school-yard renders Miss O’ Toole as something of a dragon, as she is strict with the troublemakers. Mattie cannot bring himself to stand up for her and lose his safe, faceless place in the crowd. New school, new beginning. Hide anything that is not normal, is not like anybody else, and he knows he will be fine. But with this sketch he has gotten carried away, given the dragon her almond-shaped eyes and turned her necklace into a pattern around its leathery neck.

She moves on to break up a scuffle between two boys near the paint-pots, and Mattie relaxes. He feels as though he is being stared at. Do they know? But when he glances up no eyes are on him.

That evening, in front of the News, his father grumbles about the IRA militants and the British Army, and Mattie sinks into his own private world. As long as he appears to agree with what his old man is saying, he is safe. He wonders about evolution, he wonders whether God caused the dinosaurs to grow wings. He watches the report of another bombing on the TV and wonders aloud whether God is extinct.

He does not realise at first, and then becomes aware of the stillness in the room. Mattie looks at his mother. Her hand covers her mouth, and she is white again, and her eyes flicker towards his father.

His old man gets out of the chair.

“What did you say?”

Mattie refuses to back down. Any form of submission will only make it worse; it’s already going to be bad.

“Look at all the violence in the world, Da. Car bombs. Guns. War. How could all this be happening if God was still alive?” If He’s still here, why does He let you beat my mother?

His father advances on him now, shaking.

“You will apologise.”

“Times have changed since the New Testament, anyway,” Mattie carries on.

Inside a part of him cannot believe he is saying this out loud.

“God can’t evolve, so he must be dead by now.”

“I’ll teach yis to paraphrase Darwin at me! We raise you to be a good, decent Catholic man.”

Then the blow comes, from the left, and smashes into Mattie’s cheek. He spits out a tooth and runs for the sanctuary of the bathroom, and the sound of his father’s heavy boots follows him in.

 

“Well, my son?” the priest asks.

His voice is mild. He cannot possibly know what is reeling through Mattie’s head, the memory of a bar of soap wedged into his mouth, gagging, acrid, bitter. The bruises he went to school with the next day.

He left home early, arrived outside his classroom twenty minutes before the bell. Miss O’Toole’s heels sounded along the corridor, and he tried to hide. He really tried.

“Mattie?”

She stopped in front of him. He dared not look up. Though her face was a source of comfort to him, he couldn’t bear the way he imagined she must be gazing at him.

“Mattie? Matthew. Stand up straight. Why are you turning your face to the wall?”

It was no use. He looked her directly in the eye. For the first time, he noticed her irises contained a hint of green.

Her mouth formed an O.

“Where did you get those? What happened?”

She gestured at the livid purple and blue marks where his blood had risen under the skin which met with his Da’s fist.

“Fell down the stairs.”

She didn’t believe it.

“Matthew, if you’re being bullied…if someone’s being nasty to you, you can tell me.”

The muscles in his throat moved but no sound came. He wanted to deny it. At the same time, he wanted her to feel something for him, even if it was pity. A small section of his brain screamed at him for accepting pity from a woman, imagining what his father would have to say about that.

“I’ll pop around your house tonight,” Miss O’Toole smiled. “Have a chat with your parents. I’m sure we can work out a solution.”

However, when she came around to Mattie’s house, his mother was out.

He remembers it so vividly, coming home from playing football in the park and finding them entwined on the sofa. His father and Miss O’ Toole. He tried to warn her off. He shouted things. His father chased him out of the house in a storm of rage.

His English tutor always recommended that he write to deal with his emotions, and Mattie does. He knows the comfort to be had locked in a tower of words. But to say them aloud?

How?

“Father,” Mattie begins. His mouth feels thick and dry. “I’ve lost my faith.”