A girl two parishes away went to England for an abortion, so every priest in every parish in every D postcode is preaching the Miracle of Life, this Sunday. Father Lawrence up there, he's taking his time about it, clocking twenty minutes so far and with no signs of slowing down. But I can tell you all about Miracle of Life in a few short, manageable sentences. The miracle of my life, anyway.
I live on a street with a chapel at the top of it, and a chapel at the bottom of it. And it is not a long street. Twenty cramped terrace houses down either side, that does not make for a long street. Now, as a family, generally we find ourselves here, at the top of the street, with Father Lawrence. Because if Larry does twenty minutes you can beat that ould lad Bannon'll do forty. Ma's a Catholic, but there's a strict time limit on her tolerance. But the Church of the Veneration of the Sacred Virgin, down the hill, that has a Carmelite convent attached, and apparently that's makes it, like, a deluxe chapel, so most of the locals go there. It's actually pretty bad form to come here for the quick mass. Maybe if people round here weren't sick to death of Ma already, she'd make the effort. Probably not. So here we sit (and stand, and kneel) Ma and four sisters and me as-long-as-I-live-under-her-roof, at the quick mass, not feeling all that quick. Guaranteed; out of six, I am the only one thinking about the Miracle of Life.
The Miracle of Life, or my life anyway? The Miracle is I haven't fecking topped myself yet.
Well, it used to be a miracle. These days I have an explanation for it. These days I can see the light at the end, getting closer every day. That's where my thoughts go when the Miracle of Life gets too depressing. But I want to get the details right, so I nudge Ma; "What date is it?"
"Shut up and listen," she hisses back at me.
What, about the Miracle of Life? She's not listening. And if she is, she's a hypocrite. I'm not pointing fingers or saying anything I shouldn't. I'm just saying there's less than a year between each of my sisters and then nothing after me. Forget it. She probably doesn't even know what date it is.
I need to look elsewhere. Father Lawrence is still doing twelve-to-the-dozen up there, so I've got time. This is my mission, my distraction. When I was five years old, sitting in this same grubby old chapel, which was new then, but still grubby, I used to look for patterns in the stained glass. The church hasn't changed, the boredom hasn't changed. The mission is the only thing that's changed.
Fat Joe's in the row behind, with his arse spreading out by the second, going to devour the whole church someday, but he's fat because he can afford to be. Sundays he'll sometimes where his big gold watch, and that has the date on it. All I need to do is drop something behind him and lean back for it. But it's an awkward angle and he doesn't always wear it. Then that's all chances blown, as soon as Ma figures out I'm not even pretending to pay attention anymore. No, the jelly-man can't help me, the jelly-man is of no use to anybody, fat bastard…
Should've picked up a leaflet on the way in. They have the date at the top of them. But I never lift one because then I have to pretend to read it, and Ma's very quick to notice if anybody's on the wrong page. Where's the nearest leaflet?
It's on the pew in front. Easier to get to, harder to cover up. It belongs to Margaret Day, too, sour-faced old bitch from two doors down. Got herself a d-i-v-o-r-c-e a couple of years ago and the nuns won't let her in the good chapel anymore. Don't think that doesn't sting her. I need to think about this one carefully, because if Mrs Day (as she is still referred to) starts sighing at me, I'll be finding my own meals the rest of this week.
A bit of research first, then; I lean forward over one knee. Just to 'tie my shoelace', but I swear to you, Ma and all the girls' heads turn as one, all staring, like I've done something that'll leave them mortified and hiding their faces until their Jesus comes for them. But what the hell, I'm down here now. Looking between the seat and the bar at the back of it, I can almost see the date, just the edge of a red digit, but it's under Mrs Day's coat. I don't need to move it much. I just need Ma to look away. So I stay with the shoelace idea for five seconds too long until she shakes her head in disgust and looks back to Larry in his pulpit.
Then with one very quick hand (and, like, an embarrassing feeling of accomplishment) I edge enough of the coat away. Thirtieth. The thirtieth and final day of April.
This is why it's no longer a miracle that I choose to go on. Better times are within reach, closer and closer, so close I can fucking taste it sometimes, like a beautiful scent that comes and goes when the breeze is right, all the better because it's not there all the time, it's going to be amazing. Without a doubt, like, life-defining-moment incredible.
If you're counting down (and oh dear sweet bleeding Christ I am counting down), this is day eighteen. And those eighteen days will pass and I will be eighteen. Normally I can take or leave birthdays. They're a day when you're a year closer to dying. But eighteen.
I swear to God, while I'm here in his so-called house under his all-seeing eyes, the final stroke of midnight, May 17th? It's a swift hard slan to Dublin forever and ever, amen. These are the only prayers you'll ever catch me saying. Just let me make it that far, big lad, and that'll be you and me done. I'll go my way, you go yours. I know what you're thinking too, sir, that we went our separate ways a couple of years ago. There was something of a split between me and the straight-and-narrow, I'm the first one to admit that. And if it comes to the end and I was wrong and there's a hell, I'll stand up to that like a man. But just let me survive another eighteen days. Just give me that opportunity, let me tell Dublin to go and fuck itself, and we'll call it quits. Deal?
I feel like God nods and says 'Deal'. I'm in a church; if I feel like he agrees with me here, that's pretty good. It encourages me, too, to actually make sort-of an effort with the rest of the service. Actually, aside from the preaching, I don't really mind Mass. I mean, I think it's ridiculous, but the ritual of it, the normality. Yes, it's boring but… There's something about it. I can sit through one happy enough, except for the sermons. Anyway, it's only on the off-chance there actually is a big man in the sky paying attention to my every move. I feel like, if he can see me at least making a token effort, and what's eighteen days in the grand scheme of things? He just might… might be a little more inclined to help.
Reciprocity. I like that word. Never should have used it at school, though. Yeah, it was an English class, but that doesn't make it any better. You'd think I'd have learned that lesson by now. Fourteen years of being forced through social education, you'd think I'd have learned by now not to use words like 'reciprocity' in school. But it's, like, there's a point where the damage is done and I might as well say whatever I want… Nobody would think it was funny if they took a second and thought about it. Because it's everything, y'know. Reciprocity.
This whole life, this whole world, it's all about what you're getting out of it. Nobody wants to be around you unless you've got something to offer them. I'm going to live by that when I'm free. That'll be the only commandment. Thou shalt never be a waste of oxygen. Thou shalt never be fecking useless.
Anyway, Larry says the last of the amens and we all file out of the pew. Out through the entrance hall, under the wary, judgemental eyes of a dozen sculpted saints, until I get hauled back by the hood of my coat, Ma's pink plastic fingernails dragging down my neck by accident, saying, "What's the hurry?"
Which is not fair, because I'm not hurrying. And Niamh and Caoimhe are in front of me, and they didn't get hauled back. They're talking and everything, and loudly too, about fixing Niamh's perm, which is hardly chapel-courtyard talk now, is it? But to Niamh and Caoimhe get their necks scraped open to bleed with the martyrs? Do the fuck…
Caoimhe, by the way, just while we're talking about my sisters, is a trainee hairdresser. But she's been a trainee hairdresser for three years, so I'm thinking she's probably shite at it or she'd be a hairdresser by now and no trainee about it. That's why Niamh's perm is crap; she looks like Bruce Springsteen. I'm not being petty or bitter or anything, I'm just telling you facts about my sisters.
Here's two facts about the other two; Mena, who is the eldest, exits the chapel with her arm wound through Ma's. This is not a sweet, affectionate gesture. This is because she knows she'll be the one stuck with the bat in her old age. She's practicing for that. And, y'know, working her way to the top of the will, but that probably comes across as cynical, doesn't it? And the two of them, Mena and Ma, they have Cathy so cowed she doesn't dare walk a half-step away from them. Ma pulling me back, I'm practically standing on Cathy's toes and she hasn't even the wit to move. It's not her fault, exactly?, but it sickens me looking at her all the same.
Thou shalt never be weak. If I was going to have a second commandment that would be it, but I like to think that one is just a given. After all, what could be more useless than having your entire life dictated by somebody else? Eighteen days and then nobody'll ever be able to dictate to me again.
I reach back and, careful as I can, extract my hood out of those talons. I explain, softly, carefully, "I'm going down to Sacred Virgin, wait for Conor coming out." It's okay to be careful of her, now that we're so close to the end. A month or two ago, it would have made me physically ill, explaining myself to Ma. But at this point, what difference does it make? It's nice to be nice, when it won't be for long.
"Dinner at two," is all the thanks I get for my efforts.
"I'm having dinner at Conor's house."
From Ma's shoulder, with a snide little nose-twitch she does like I smell or something, Mena says, "Why?"
Because Conor's ma can actually cook. Because his Da's funny (and he's got one of those). Because Conor's got a brother, Noel, and even though I don't really like him I've always wondered what that would be like. Because the Clearys don't make me sit on the spare chair, which is actually from the desk upstairs and is two inches shorter than the rest of the dining room chairs. Loads of reasons, really. And I would tell everything single one of them to Mena, and top it all off by telling her I would actually be able to keep food down at the Clearys house, because I wouldn't have to look at her while I was eating. But I can't really say any of that in front of Ma. I shrug and tell her, "Because he asked me?"
Ma actually tells me, in as many words, to 'Be Good'. Ugh... You see, by now, why I have to get out of here? I hope so anyway; I don't like having to spell things out.
Anyway, I leave them all there. There's at least half-an-hour of socializing to do after Mass, like these people don't all live within spitting distance of each other. I'm not up for it. Anyway, that all goes a lot smoother without me around. So I leave them to it and walk down the hill to the other chapel. Like I told you, their priest goes on a bit longer. He likes to give it the full fire-and-brimstone. One of his sermons might actually get quite interesting. But he won't have our 'heathen clan' (direct quote, that) in Sacred Virgin, so I'll never know.
I wait inside, in the hall. An almost identical hall to the one us heathens have up at St Michael's, but we'll not tell Father Brennan that. Same saints and everything, except these ones are paintings and not statues. You know them by their methods of execution; St Lucy, holding a plate with her two torn-out eyes lying bloody on it. St Sebastian, tied to a pillar and shot full of arrows. St Peter, crucified feet first. There's one, I forget her name because she's not on these walls, but you know her in a painting because they draw her with her own flayed-off skin flung over her arm like a fecking fox fur or something… They fuck you up, your Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
That's quite clever, actually, I'm quite proud of that one. Don't get me wrong; I never understood all this business well enough that I can blame anything on it. I don't think anybody should try and explain what's wrong with me. But I just feel like I should feel more about Lucy and her lonely looking eyeballs.
'More of what' is what I'm trying to figure out, standing looking at the painting, at mournful Lucy in a dusty pink robe, and they're just wrapping up inside, when the main doors open. There's that little burst of noise before they seal again, that rumble of loads of people answering at once. I turn towards it. It's Holy Joe. He's Fat Joe's brother-in-law (this whole area being one biggish pond of borderline incest), but thin as a rake, so nobody gets them confused. He's lay-clergy, and comes out still wearing his cheap, not-even-gold-plated medal round his neck from giving out communion. The other thing he's wearing is a very strong and not very Christian hatred burning out from inside him. Before he even speaks I fix my face to 'really-do-not-care', just so we'll all know where we stand.
He says, "Out."
Says me, pointing up at the ceiling, "House of God. You speak for God, do you? God throwing me out of his house? If God tells me to get out, I'll go. His house, after all." This might sound like I'm deliberately poking at him? That's because I am. I'm not thick; this ends with me leaving. So I might as well piss him off while I'm still here.
"We can do without little psychos like you around here. If Father Lawrence'll have you up the road, I'd suggest you-"
"I've just come from them. It wasn't enough. I wanted more. I wanted to feel the spirit flowing through me. And tell me Father Brennan goes that way, so-"
"Out!" he says, a bit sharper this time.
So I go out. Wait in the thin, cold rain. Because the proper god-botherers don't want me. Honestly… you come back from one major world city with one totally-not-proven scare story behind you and suddenly you're the Antichrist. But that's a whole other story. Not supposed to talk about that. Not-while-I-live-under-her-roof. I didn't even do it. I swear. Scout's honour. Cross my heart and kiss a pig, I didn't even do it. Whatever you've heard about me, I didn't even do it.
Anyway, Conor's first out of the church. And he is hurry, but nobody drags him back and nobody's calling after him. He just keeps walking and I fall in beside him, getting away from there. He says, "Did that chapter-and-verse arsehole lay into you again?"
"We should do something to him before we leave." I wish he meant that. Conor likes to talk about that kind of thing, and he comes up with some evil fecking ideas, but he'd never do anything about it. And he wouldn't like if anything got done about it either. I don't hold it against him. If it was something really important, he wouldn't be all talk anymore.
But Conor came out of that church, all clean-cut and blonde hair and looking like the altar boy he used to be. He's not going to move against Holy Joe. It's a good idea, but he wants to leave his options open. Conor wants to be able to visit. Which, to me, just sounds like mental illness, but what can I do? He's my mate; you have to put up with these things.
"Jesus," he mutters, turning his collar up. "There's countries where it's summer already. We're going to one of those."
By definition, a country where it's summer already won't be Ireland, so I just say, "Okay. Is your Noel getting us into the pub?"
"Noel doesn't need to get us into the pub," he says, dead proud of himself. Conor's two weeks older than me and acts like it makes all the difference. I've been suffering this routine for a fortnight.
"Well, is Noel getting me into the pub, then?"
"Noel doesn't need to get you into the pub, James."
"Well then, are you getting me into the pub? Is that what you're getting at? Oh great and benevolent Conor, is that what you're looking for?"
Fast, admitting he's taking the piss, "I would if I could, but everybody knows you round here so we're still fucked."
"So we're going to the shed, then."
Conor nods, "We're going to the shed. Not be long now, we can drink wherever we want."
"Eighteen days," I tell him, glad to finally tell somebody. "Eighteen days and it's elbow to elbow at any bar in the country."
"Trust you to put a fecking number on it."
"Now, you can get to eighteen. We got you counting to twenty before, remember? When you had to use your toes as well as your fingers?" He shoves me off the kerb, nearly in front of a red Fiesta that swerves, but doesn't blow the horn on a Sunday morning. Only a half second too late, Conor grabs me back, laughing, and when I get over nearly dying with eighteen days to go, I laugh too. And we walk on towards the shed, the two of us, to burn this day. Then the other days will follow. Then we'll be gone.
The miracle will be life, finally.