“But Da, I don’t wanna this week.”
“Ye have to. It’s Sunday.”
“I don’t feel well.”
“Don’t be daft. Yer goin, John Paul. Ye need to be there.’’
“It’s J… P,” I snapped back. John Paul is for the Pope and Holy Joes.
“Come on, get yerself ready.”
“I don’t even believe in Him.”
Before the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had crossed the line. Da stood frozen in his simmering anger, only moving again when he shot past me to get to the kitchen.
“As long as yer under my roof, yer going. Ye hear me?” he bellowed.
He began searching for his change for the church collection, smacking away my fingers when I pointed out the piled coins. He then stood thumping the inside of his cap. This was a sign he was either contemplating something or wanted the hat to fit as neatly as it did last week.
As we walked there, I plotted the distance between us to one prudent step, right behind him the whole way. Ma, the jammy mare, was laid up with a cold she’d picked up at bingo on Friday. And she would try and tell ye, she never had any luck there.
Well, we all make our own luck, I guess. And I, myself, have been doing alright these last few weeks. You see I’m the only boy in the whole parish trusted enough to watch over the town’s hard-earned cash. I dish round the collection plate when’s it’s time to. At thirteen that’s quite an accomplishment, because the other people that get to do it are actual adults. But when yer uncle is Father Michael, the parish priest, ye get some perks.
We arrived and took our usual seats. A few of the altar boys were already in action as we settled in, and from the back came the murmur of friendly chatter where a breeze had broken in round the brogues. Then this collective final sniffing and clearing of lungs occurred before Father Michael arrived.
I remained sulking. Da was giving me the side-eye. His little sign that he was beginning to soften. He knew I didn’t really mean it earlier. I don’t know why he had to act like it was the first time I’d said it though.
“Ah come on now,” he said.
“Wha? Ye never believe me, Da.”
“Ye look fine to me, John Paul.”
“I don’t feel fine and it’s J… P!”
“Sssssshhhhh… it’s starting.”
He always did that.
“Stand up, will ye.” And he always did that.
Da fell comfortably into the chanting groove of prayer. A real pro at it. On the other hand, I only mimicked the words and became distracted with the holy drone going on around me. Some people really went for it, as if Our Lord was actually watching this charade. That’s all mass was — a heap of prayer in between sessions of sitting, kneeling and standing. Staring into your deepest thoughts.
I was on autopilot through most of it. It went on like this until collection time. Da’s happiest time of the week. He was so proud that his son, JP Doyle, was a church collector, and that I was the only one chosen to help Father Michael total up the ‘takings’ after mass was over.
Some gave fivers. A fiver! I could never get over that. Others gave the change their wives made sure wasn’t drunk or dropped in some bookies somewhere.
When I was done with my section’s whip-round, I returned the plate to the room next to the altar with everyone else. I then walked back to my seat, taking my time getting there, and squeezed through the pew and plonked down kneeling next to Da. A mixture of relief and elation ran through me that was quickly halted when Da snapped his fingers round mine as I was about to slip what I got into my pocket.
“Put it back,’’ he said. His eyes forward, filling with tears. A hot breath puffed from his nose. Something I’d never seen before. My heart belted in my chest and my knees trembled. I stood up and as the sermon continued walked back up to the room with the collection plates and put the money back. Thankfully the room was empty of any busy altar boys.
My mind was spinning after that. I felt awful for letting Da down. He deserved better and I knew it. I felt like a traitor. I felt like Judas Iscariot. I couldn’t even look at Jesus up there on the cross. We had our communion and the last few songs, then everyone got up to leave. Except Da. As everyone was pushing to get out like penned in sheep, he remained. Stiff as a board.
I could sense the huge disappointment in him as I stood there. Father Michael smiled at us as he went into the back. He would be expecting me soon to total up with him. So, Da would make this quick.
He kept his attention toward the front, gripping his cap. Exhaled after a few seconds of deep thinking.
“So, this is J… P, is it?’’ he said, barely opening his mouth in the empty church.
“I won’t…. it won’t happen again. I’m sorry, Da.’’
“Are ye?’’ Another hard pant shot from his nose.
“Of course, Da.’’
“So am I, John Paul.’’
I looked up at him and wondered what he was thinking, searching for even the tiniest shift in his eyes. But that forgiving side-eye I needed wasn’t gonna come this time.
“Go on,’’ he said shooing me away with his hand. “I’ll see ye at home.’’
I left him standing there as he began patting his cap.
Raymond Sloan lives and writes in County Down, Ireland. He has recently been published in The Drabble, Flash Fiction Magazine, Microfiction Monday Magazine, Ariel Chart, Nanoism and Blink Ink. He prays for people like JP.