A bottle of holy water from Lourdes sat on the floor of the cloakroom, just inside the door, untouched by anyone except Ma who used it to refill the tiny china containers hanging on the walls of every room.
Was the water used up by the dipping fingers which subsequently crossed chests looking for absolution for questionable sins, venial and ascending? Or did the water evaporate? A more practical and scientific reason for refilling. We doubted everything and said more prayers to compensate. Ma always said we weren’t capable of ‘mortlars’ – her word for mortal sins, but we wondered.
We knew the prayers off by heart, even the long Gloria but we didn’t know what they meant. Were we supposed to? Or was the remembering of the words the important thing until we grew up to realise the significance, if any? Was it that organised?
The holiness was in the tradition, the gathering of family, the rosary beads, the murmur of low voices, Granny’s fat legs encased in black splayed out from under her layers of wool.
My knees hurt. When it came to my turn to say the bit I knew off by heart for years, I forgot how the prayer went. Ma’s rosary beads snapped, and all the little plastic balls scattered across the room. The baby, who was exempt from praying but sat in the middle of the floor anyway, picked up a rolling bead and put it in her mouth. Da, who had eyes in the back of his head saw the baby and yelled for someone to stop her. Granny tried to get up, but her knickers came loose and collapsed around her ankles. We giggled but the praying never stopped.
Smoke billowed from the fireplace in bursts of small clouds, choking. Da yelled for us all to get out, shut the doors, shut the doors. We couldn’t do both, Da but he knew best, and the chimney fire was contained. We all knew the next day would see the arrival of the sweep with his black hands and brushes. We think Ma will be cleaning forever but two days later the room was as good as before. Ma had magic powers.
A gold-framed declaration of the Pope blessing the joining of two families occupied pride of place on the wall of the good room. We all wondered how the Pope knew?
We had regular clothes and Mass clothes, never to be mixed. During Lent, before school, in the dark, we’d troop down the lane to attend morning Mass. It was like an adventure until the shady figure of a man appeared at the end of the lane, exposing his murky world to our innocent eyes. Da wouldn’t let us go to morning Mass anymore – the end of an adventure and the opening of eyes to new dangers.
Da took us to the library on Saturday mornings – a delight until we accepted a lift home from a stranger and everything changed. We didn’t know why. Nothing happened but Da found a temper he never had and then tears we’d never seen before so we were afraid. Lessons.
Uncles and aunts died with alarming regularity which we didn’t understand but we adhered to the sombre mood of the house when it happened. Too young to feel the loss because we had each other, and we were a crowd, but we grew to feel the loss, when Da was taken like his brothers and sisters before him. We weren’t ready. We hadn’t finished loving him.
Are we ever finished loving? With family, never.
The little china containers are still there, now with fragile wisps of plants and herbs sticking up from inside. Miraculously, the small bottle in the shape of the Virgin Mary, erstwhile container of holy Lourdes water, still sits on the floor inside the cloakroom door, empty. A sign of times gone but not forgotten.
Alva is an Irish writer from Dublin. First published by ‘Ireland’s Own’ Winning Writers Annual 2015. Three times a winner of Ad Hoc Fiction’s weekly flash competition, her stories feature in Firefly Magazine, Microcosms Fiction, Cracked Flash, Café Aphra and Zero Flash. A short story is forthcoming in ‘The People’s Friend.’ Twitter: @Alva1206
Image: Fischer Twins