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16 October 2014
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Paul McLaughlin
Paul McLaughlin

I am a retired media relations manager with a large corporate company who still writes fiction, but now purely for enjoyment. A founder member of the Tin Bath Writers Co-op based in Belfast's Sailortown. Staunch supporter of campaign to reopen St Joseph's Church in the docklands - hence picture of me as a clergyman.

An Answer to a Prayer by Paul McLaughlin

We sit in the shape of an unlucky horse-shoe, armchairs shoulder to shoulder, a ragged rank waiting for lunch or dinner or bed, some not knowing which and most not caring.
Jimmy Mackin is rambling, not about anything in particular, just wittering on in broken sentences, his words disjointed and awkward, his tongue too big for his tiny, puckered, pencil sharpener shaped mouth.
Big Ronnie, the Armagh man, is staring at the ceiling and marvelling quietly to himself, rubbing his closely-shaved chin a ruby red and saying “Boys a dear” over and over to himself.
The others, all women well on in years with powdered faces and empty features, are either sleeping, dozing or about to nod off. Those memories that they still treasure silently have been packed away for safe-keeping
in a room where no-one else can go.
I have my Rosary beads wrapped tightly around the broken knuckles of my right hand, my mother’s beads, blood red and battered from a thousand vigils, counting up the Hail Mary’s and counting down the mysteries like a man who has been given the answer to a prayer. An answer that came in a sentence, a life sentence of total care and confinement at the Salisbury Lodge Home for the Elderly.

Birdsong through the bare November branches of rowan, horse-chestnut and alder was like a chorus of telephone calls along the avenue that led to the reservoir. Chattering sparrows, cawing crows and larcenous magpies, with indigo tails dipped in the bluest of ink, nestled among the remaining leaves of spent Autumn that clung like torn pages of leathery parchment to boughs and branches. The late afternoon sky was grey-wide and darkening, topped with peaks of water-colour red, orange and vanilla that promised sunshine for another day.
Jack the Labrador, his mud splattered golden coat huddled round him against a biting north wind, lay in the driveway of number 24, unusually quiet, his head to one side like a king on a coin. Only the slight discoloration at his temple and the single droplet of blood at the end of his snout giving a lie to yet another afternoon of indolence.
The back door of that house lay open, a gash the size of a fist showing in its broken window, the eager wind whistled in the narrow hallway like a radio being tuned, but the shouting and screaming from the front room went unnoticed in a street that commuted to the city for eight hours each day. The neighbours, such as they were, young folk with two cars, two holidays and too little time to care, were far away in offices, showrooms and shops.
I felt my hands on his throat, squeezing the breath from him like a bag of air and about as musical. His face reddened, his eyes bulged and spit-flecks of foam ran through my fingers as I kneaded, watching his tears of fear turn to a sweet wine of suffocation. And all the time I worked hard to drain the life from him, the music of the record player, a Chopin nocturne as peaceful as a kiss on the ear, played on in my head and in my hands.
“Jesus Christ”, I shouted, jumping back from the body; “ You’ve made me kill you, you thieving get”. I screamed into his distorted face, my breath racing, my heart an ebony stone.
His gulping, gasps for air broke my concentration and I watched as the puzzlement of a child dragged his features back from the brink.
“ I’m sorry mister”, he whined; “I’m sorry, I never meant you no harm”.
I kicked him hard in the ribs, through his greasy, denim jacket, as he tried to get to his feet. He folded like a foetus.
“Not as sorry as you will be”, I screeched, hearing my own words like angry knives between us.
“Not as sorry as you will be”.
His sobs and cries and whingeing simply fuelled the rage in my feet and I kicked out, my new shoes, worn only once on the walk through Roselawn, hard and hurting against his flailing hands, arms and shoulders.
“Your sort don’t know the meaning of the word”, I said, my eyes downcast, my words soft among the violence, my breathing regular, my thoughts murderous and organised.
“You’re worse than animals”.
I kicked him again, harder this time as if I was taking a fifty at Croke Park and against the wind.
He squirmed and writhed like something born to it, something that I wanted to kill.
“What would know about ordinary decent people, what would you care, even if you could”.
The beating continued, only measured now that I was in control. I was no longer afraid of this twenty-something intruder with his shaved head and hand-drawn tattoos. I was the boss.
He would do the same to me I thought, would have done so already if I hadn’t caught him with the coal scuttle to the side of the head. And for what? The poker hand of ten pound notes between the leaves of our pension book, the six-year-old video recorder that always managed to record the wrong programme on the wrong channel.
Beads of sweat ran like string from my hair, salt water in the fresh saliva of my mouth as I punched and kicked, punctuating my words with blows that meant as much as any vocabulary.
“My poor wife went through 12 months of cancer – do you know what that means. My Mary, a woman who never hurt anyone”.
“You’re right you’re sorry sonny - this will be the sorriest day of your life, by God it will”, and I stopped, startled, at the mention of his name.
The over-mantle mirror showed the face of a monster, with bared teeth and blazing eyes – my face!
I crushed my right fist, a ball of fire, in my left hand and stepped back, crying out “Jesus help me” for only him to hear.
The boy, his blood and mucus trailing from the good carpet we had bought in the Co-op, made a break for the door, his face a fleshy pulp. I watched him go, my first visitor since the funeral.
Later, when the police had taken their statements and dusted Mary’s little palace with a light sheen of finger print film, I traced her name on the front of our allowance book like a blind man.
“You know you could find that you are in for some trouble, Mister Hogan”, said the young constable, wearing his cap on his knee and his side arm bulging against the lill of our armchair.
“Excessive force and all that”.
“I’ll take what’s coming to me, son,” I said calmly; “Always have done, good or bad, as God is my judge”.
He left with his partner, a thin lad whose frame cried out for a flak jacket, like two bob-a-job cubs after a well-earned shilling.

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More from this writer:

Short Stories
All That Matters
An Answer to a Prayer
In search of magic wands

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