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Liz McSkeane – Lessons

P Liz McKeane LE P&W Vol 1 2019

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Short story by Liz McSkeane

Liz McSkeane born in Scotland of Scottish and Irish parents and has lived in Dublin since 1981. She is an award-winning novelist, poet and short story writer: her début novel, “Canticle”, was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre/Greenbean Novel Fair of 2016; in 2011,  she was an IWC Lonely Voice winner and in 1999, she won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year.  Liz has three poetry collections and has published short stories and poems in many journals. More information about her work can be found on her website, www.elizabethmcskeane.com/  and from Turas Press, https://turaspress.ie/ the small, independent press she set up in  2017. Since then, Turas Press, published ten books,  with a further three scheduled for 2020. In addition to her literary work, Liz is an educational consultant. She holds a PhD in Education and consults on education policy and practice for organisations in Ireland and Europe.


Lessons

Mrs. Gordon was nearly crying and she wasn’t even a catholic.   Mam was doing the ironing when the news-flash came on and she burned a big hole in daddy’s blue shirt. And it wasn’t even his work shirt, it was one he wore on Sundays but mam still didn’t notice until there was a bit of smoke and a burny smell and she just went on looking at the television and she didn’t even sit down.

Emergency Ward Ten wasn’t coming on tonight.  It wasn’t fair. She was just starting to greet when somebody knocked on the door.

“Get that.”

And mam didn’t even say to stop crying, she just switched off the iron but she still had it in her hand and she kept on standing there, watching the telly.

It was Mrs. Gordon from three up.  Mrs. Gordon and mam were sort of friends. Mam said she would be forever grateful until the end of her days for everything that Mrs. Gordon had did for her when the baby died whatever baby that was and Mrs. Gordon said she could never repay mam for getting St. Anthony to find her wages that time she lost her purse when she came into mam roaring and crying and mam said, how much is it and Mrs. Gordon said two pound ten, it’s all we’ve got for the week and mam said, if you promise St. Anthony a half a crown I think you’ll find your purse will turn up. So Mrs. Gordon did and she found her purse and she gave mam the half crown and mam put it in the right box in the chapel because if you don’t pay your debts to St. Anthony he’ll make you lose the thing he found for you. And mam had to do it, not Mrs. Gordon because protestants haven’t got St. Anthony so if they lose their keys, too bad.

So they were sort of friends but sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes Mrs. Gordon didn’t take her turn at washing the close. Mrs. Gordon had two big boys and a wee girl and a wee boy and sometimes the big boys and Mr. Gordon all got a fish supper on their way home from their work and quite often they dropped the newspapers all greasy from the chips right at the bottom of the stairs.

“For me to clean up,”

Then mam would boil up a bucket of hot soapy water and take it out to the close and get down on her knees with the scrubbing brush. And when she was finished she’d slap the floor cloth against the wall as if she’d quite like it to be somebody’s head.

“She’s got enough on her plate keeping them weans out of his road.”

Daddy had went around to the Black Cat café to phone for the polis one night when Mrs. Gordon came to the door with a bruise on her cheek. So mam brought her in and gave her a cup of tea but by the time the polis came Mrs. Gordon had changed her mind and went back up to her place three up.

“What else can she do, in the long run?”

And mam said, right enough. And it was a good while before Mrs. Gordon spoke to mam after that.

Mrs. Gordon said he was the best thing that had happened for the catholics ever.

“It wasn’t only the catholics that voted for him.”

 Mrs. Gordon said that was right, he was a man of the people.

“He saved the world. Remember how he made them submarines turn back?”

Mam did.  The Russians were coming and all the mams and some of the daddies as well were waiting at the school gates one playtime waiting for the boys and girls to come out so as they could take them home.  There was going to be a Third World War. But he made the submarines turn back so there wasn’t.

“Mam?”

“Yes pet.”

“Did they shoot him because he was a catholic?”

Mrs. Gordon laughed. Mam went red.

“Don’t be daft.”

But a lot of things happened to you for being a catholic. You couldn’t go to the wee school on Burghead Road, you had to go to St. Constantine’s miles away through the Elder Park.  Some people called you a catty-cat and then you shouted back proddy-dog. When you did that sometimes the big boys chased you.  One time she got found out calling Andrew Gordon a proddy-dog when they were playing in the back close. She got into a big row for that.

“He called me a catty-cat first but.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“He started it.”

“Don’t answer back.”

“He was going to hit me.”

“You’re not to hit people either.”

“If he hits me first but.”

“You’re not getting into fights. It’s common as ditchwater, girls fighting.”

And daddy said you should simply turn the other cheek like gentle Jesus meek and mild. But look at what happened to him.

“And what was that?”

Father De Cecco had a long black coat and he wore thick glasses with black rims. He looked like Fearless Fly. Sometimes at playtime he waited behind the green railings where the chapel was and asked the boys and girls their catechism.

“He got crucified. And scourged.  He got a crown of thorns put on his head. All because he turned the other cheek.”

That’s what Mrs. Maguire told them in their First Holy Communion class.

“Isn’t that right?”

“Sort of.”

“So how come I have to turn the other cheek?”

Father De Cecco coughed a bit.

“Do you know your Commandments? Number Five?”

She had to think for a minute.

“Honour thy father and thy mother?’”

“Very good.”

Then Father De Cecco dipped into the big pockets in his cassock and dug out a penny carmel and stuck his hand through the green railings and gave it to her.

Mrs. Gordon was sitting down beside mam. They were drinking tea and watching the television.

“Away out and play hen.”

 Mam gave Mrs. Gordon a dirty look because it was after half seven and she was hardly ever let out to play at night.

“Put your hat and mittens on,” mam called and she ran out into the close.

It was nice being out at night. It was dark and the street-lamp beside the close made a big pool of light outside the living-room window. If you breathed hard you could make a cloud with your breath. The frost was sparkly on the pavement and the lights from the new Tunnel that went all the way under the  Clyde lit up where the wood yard used to be across the road.

There were still a few wee ones sitting on the wall outside the close. Andrew Gordon was there too.  Andrew Gordon was a pain in the neck and so was gentle Jesus meek and mild because it was his fault she couldn’t hit Andrew back or even call him a proddy-dog when he pinched her.  So she just talked to the wee ones instead.

“Do yous want to play a game?”

Nobody said no and they were all sitting in a row so the best thing was to be the teacher.  She stood in front of them with one hand stretched out and the other one on her hip.

“Sing this,” she told them.

“I’m a little teapot big and stout.

Here’s my handle.”

She put one hand on her hip to make the handle.

“Here’s my spout.

She stuck the other arm out and pointed her hand at the ground to make the spout. They all sang it. They all knew it, even the arms.  She’d learned it on her first day at school so maybe they did as well.

“I bet yous don’t know this one”.

She stood up straight and put one hand on her stomach and the other one on her forehead.

“In the name of the father.”

She kept her hand on her stomach and pointed the other one at the middle of her chest.

“And of the sum.”

She put that hand on her left shoulder.

“And of the holy.”

She put the same hand on her right shoulder.

“Goat.”

She joined her two hands together in front of her stomach.

Amen.”

Then she did it all again.  The wee ones said it after her, Andrew as well.

“That’s not bad. Have yous done this before?”

The wee ones shook their heads.

“That’s because yous are still too wee. Yous’ll get it next year in the First Holy Communion class.”

“No they won’t,” Andrew said.

“Everybody gets it.”

“They won’t.”

“Are you playing or what?”

“Aye but…”

“Then stop interrupting. I’m the teacher so you have to do what I tell you. Say and of the holy goat amen.”

“And of the holy goat amen.”

That’s ok. Now we’ll do the arms.”

They were just starting on the arms when Mr. Gordon, Andrew’s daddy, turned the corner.  He had his bunnet on and he was walking slowly and his shoulders were bent. When he passed under the street light at the end of the road the shiny patches on his donkey jacket went all glittery. He lifted his head up and looked at them but he was still a wee way away. Then he came right on up to the close and he just stopped and listened for a minute.

“What’s going on here?”

He had a wee sharp face and he scrunched it up when he was talking.

“Are yous all deaf? “

Nobody said anything.

“I asked you a question.”

He was looking straight at her. He grabbed her arm. She giggled a bit. But it wasn’t because she thought something was funny.

“Nothing Mr. Gordon, I was only teaching the wee ones a song Mr. Gordon.”

Mr. Gordon’s face scrunched up some more. He took hold of her other arm and he shook her a little bit. Nobody had ever hit her or tried to shake her, well maybe Andrew but never a grown-up except for the time daddy went to give her a smack and she skipped out of the way and he missed and hit mam instead and the two of them had a big fight.

“Don’t you ever lay a hand on that child again.”

And dad said sorry, he didn’t know his own strength. So when Mr. Gordon took a hold of her she got a fright. He looked at her for a minute and then he let go of her.

           “I’m going to be having a word with your father.”

He made a grab for Andrew and Andrew tried to duck but Mr. Gordon was too quick. Andrew sniggered. But he didn’t look as if he thought something was funny either.

“Get up them stairs.”

When they went away nobody said anything.  Some of the wee ones looked like they might be going to greet. Andrew was in trouble with his daddy and now Mr. Gordon wanted to get her into a row for something as well. She was just thinking that it was about time to finish the game when one of the wee ones put her hand up.

“Please miss?”

“Yes chicken.”

“My daddy says there’s a man that got shot on the telly.”

“Yes pet. Emergency Ward Ten’s not on tonight.”

“Please miss, why did the bad man get shot?”

“He wasn’t a bad man pet. He was a catholic.”

“Was it a protestant that shot him, then?”

“Probably.”

Then the wee ones got called in and she waited out there for a little while looking at the sparkly frost on the pavement and the street lamps pooling light and the moon that had come out from behind a cloud and she wondered how she knew, but she did know, that it would be a long time before she’d be let out again to play in the dark.


© Liz McSkeane