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Sacrifice

Paul plays with the image of his sister's doll. It is difficult to remember what Bessie looked like before he sacrificed her to the darker gods of his temper. He remembers how the red hot poker seared the thick plastic making scars across her cheeks and forehead. Paul had taken his inspiration from a drawing in the Wizard; he prefers the Wizard to illustrated comics like The Dandy and The Beano; he has always considered them juvenile.

     At six years old he'd insisted his mother read him the stories from the Hotspur and the Wizard; he sat on the rug in front of the fire, back ensconced between her legs, head laid back on her pinafored lap, and he listened, o, how the boy listened, the words flickering as brightly as the flames dancing in the glowing coals.

     At seven he read the stories for himself. He read the Hotspur and the Wizard, and the Courier and the Evening Telegraph, the Sunday Post and the People's Friend. He read anything and everything that came into the house. He rummaged in dustbins, not for 'luckies', the odds and ends of people's lives, but for something, anything to read. His mother had come across him up-ended in a dustbin, rummaging. She'd tipped his legs so he fell headfirst into the bin, then jammed on the lid. He'd howled not through fear but in protest at the stinking dark that did not allow him to read the Woman's Weekly he'd retrieved.

     He broke into his mother's private blackbox, hidden in the wardrobe, and read every letter his father had written his mother. Most of it he did not understand, the fractured English was littered with French words. Some of it embarrassed him: your legs entwined with mine ... why would his father wrestle with his mother? In the nursery he'd devoured the picture books, vaguely irked by the pictures of spotless boys and girls and their spotty dog Spot and their make-believe house with its immaculate garden, dancing daffodils, and their shiny mother and their beaming father and his stupid car.

     Nobody he knew lived like that; they had to be English, and his granddad had told him all about the English. But the letters, the words had fascinated him. The colour and shape of each letter and word enthralled him. He ran his pinkie around each letter as he murmured its sound, and when he was sure no nurse was looking he'd run the pink tip of his pink tongue around each letter, and given each word its own little kiss. Even then Paul knew he was daft.

<  2  >

     It was his turn to set and light the fire. He knew that. And he was going to set and light it. But he had to finish the Wizard first, not the whole comic, just Morgan the Mighty. It was the final episode of a six-week serialisation. Morgan, mighty jungle man that he was, had decided discretion was the better part of valour. Paul understood and accepted that. He knew brawn was all very well, but faced with a pack of heathen, yelling savages and a large, black cooking pot, temporary retreat made sense.

     There was a half-page illustration, unusual in a comic noted for its tiny typeface and dense text. Each feral face was hideously scarred, ran the text, and a glance at the line-drawing indicated that was an understatement. Paul lay on the settee and shivered in delight, restraining himself from inhaling the text in chunky gulps.

     "You'd better set the fire."

     "You set it. Eh'm reading'."

     "I'm not allowed to. I'm only seven."

     "It's no cauld."

     "It's freezing."

     "Shut up. Eh'm readin'."

     There was something about Kathleen's voice that infuriated Paul. At times she sounded like a miniature version of mum; at times she sounded like the little girl in those 'See Spot Run' picture books she adored. Not that he'd ever heard the spotless one speak, but he knew perfectly well what she would sound like if she did. A wee bampot. With ideas well above her station.

     It was his mother's fault. She had 'plans' for Kathleen, dressed her like a crinoline shepherdess, corrected her natural speech, brushed her hair two hundred times every night, yet forced her brothers to take her to the show at the Rialto cinema on a Saturday night when she was all-dolled-up and out on the town. At least it was easy to sneak their sister in through the fire-doors after the film had started and park her elsewhere for the duration. Since Joe sat with his pals, Paul was often forced to sit with Kathleen watching her sook up her Kiaora Squash with never a gurgle. Unnatural, that was.

<  3  >

     "I'll tell on you."

     "You'll what?"

     "I'll tell Joe on you."

     "Say that again."

     There was a pause. Then it came, in crystal clear English English.

     "I'll tell Joseph you would not light the fire."

     Something fired in Paul's brain. He was off the settee in a flash. Three steps across the room, and slap! The fingers of his right hand stung. Kathleen reeled back, stepping on Lucky. The cat squealed and vanished into the coalbunker. Something caught in Kathleen's throat. Was she strangling? Four red weals rose in the pale porcelain of her left cheek.

     A key turned in the lock.

     "It's only me. It's only yer granny."

     Two huge grey duffel bags joined round the middle waddled into the living room. Atop them sat Granny Cameron's head, grey hairs straying beneath a grey balaclava, cheeks ablaze from the cold, eyes caught in a crossfire of bewildered merriment.

     Kathleen howled and was gathered in by padded arms ending in grey fingerless gloves.

     "C'mere, hen. Whit's wrang wi' yi'? C'mon. Tell yer gran."

     Kathleen sobbed. "Paul did it. Paul slapped me. And he won't light the fire. It's his turn, but we won't light the fire."

     Paul was gratified to see snot running down from his sister's nose. You wouldn't catch the wee girl in 'See Spot Run' doing that. Kathleen licked the snot into her mouth between sobs. She was human after all.

     "O, yer a bad wee bugger, Paul Biscuit," said his grandmother. "Yer just like yer grandfaither, a bad bugger. Yeh'll end up in drink, just like him. A chanty wrestler. Yeh'll baith end up in bammydoon."

<  4  >

     Condemnation from his grandmother was unexpected but tolerable, the insult to his grandfather unbearable. Paul stepped forward and slapped his granny across her glowing left cheek.

     It would not be possible to determine whose eyes opened widest. Kathleen's sobbing subsided into silence. Granny Cameron stood in silence. Only Paul's defiant gasps broke the silence. "Remember to breathe," whispered Kathleen. "Remember Dr Heinreich showed you how to breathe."

     Boy, girl and elderly woman would be calculating possible outcomes. Granny Cameron wouldn't tell Paul's mother; she'd arrived half an hour late, and the consequences of her sin of omission might outweigh that of Paul's commission. She would not need to forgive Paul; her nature, unable to entertain blame or guilt, was unencumbered by the need to forgive. Kathleen might not want to tell their mother, but when those two lay in bed at night, daughter curled into the spoon of mother's body, what secrets could be withheld from such intimacy?

     Paul wanted to rush into his granny's arms. She would hold him, hug him, enfold him in her smells of kale soup and clootie dumplings. Both would be healed, and she would pronounce absolution in terms more absolute than the entire Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church could ever manage: "Nivir mind, eh'll just put the kettle on." But there were other mysteries in play.

     His mother had always kept his grandmother at arm's length, civil, polite, amicable, but never warm, never unconditionally warm. He'd seen the coldness in his mother's eyes, and the hurt in his grandmother's, and though his mother never said a word against his grandmother, and though she encouraged her bairns to spend lots of time at their granny's, and allowed them to stay on Saturday nights with their rantin', rovin' reprobate of a granddad, she never gave herself to them, never visited their home, and rarely invited her father to theirs. Paul had imbibed his mother's milk, and as he grew older, as he established his otherness, he, too, kept his distance.

     He fought for control of his breathing and won.

<  5  >

     "Eh'll set the fire now," he said.

     "Eh'll put the kettle on," his granny said.

     "I'll wash and dress Bessie," his sister said. "Then I'll put her to sleep."

     Paul loathed the stupid dolly.

     Catherine Bosquet was one to spare the rod but she was not one to spoil her children; she believed in the truth, no matter how the truth hurt. When she told Paul the truth, he knew she meant it: "This is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me." It was time for the rod in the form of its secular substitute 'the belt', a half inch thick leather strap with a split up the middle and five 'fingers' at the business end. His mother's tawse was a classic crafted from the finest Lochgelly leather that had blistered Scottish schoolboys' fingers from generation unto generation.

     The boy told his mother before she'd got her coat and turban off.

     "Eh slapped meh sister."

     He helped her slide her coat off; the delicious smell of jute enveloped him. He wanted to wrap himself in her coat, curl up on the settee, and disappear back into the jungles with Morgan the Mighty. He hung her coat on the brass hook on the back of the door. His sister heaved the message bag onto the kitchen table. "It was my fault. I annoyed him. He was reading," whispered his sister.

     "Let Jean-Paul tell me," his mother said. Nothing could be read in the tone of her voice. It was implacably neutral.

     "She tehlt me ..."

     "She told me ..."

     "She told me to set the fire. I was reading." He tried to keep the stubbornness out of his voice. He failed. The woman undid her turban and shook her hair; tiny jute fibres drifted down to the linoleum.

<  6  >

     "So you hit your sister."

     "I lost my rag."

     "Your what?"

     "My temper. I lost my temper ..."

     "... and hit your sister."

     Kathleen sat on the settee. She stared into the fire. "It didn't hurt ... much," she mumbled.

     "Go on."

     How could she know there was more? Paul frowned. Something gave him away. He could lie to anyone: Father Bone, Miss Watt, even to his granddad, and silence was the finest form of the lie. So how did she know, how did she always know? It unnerved him.

     "I slapped Granny."

     "Why?"

     Which answer would serve best? He rifled through the possibilities.

     "She took Kathleen's side. She always takes Kathleen's side."

     "So then, you hit little girls and old women. A fine man, you are."

     He wanted to throw himself into her arms, beg forgiveness, press his face into her stomach and drown in the smell of jute she brought home every evening from Cox's jute mills. But his pride and her politeness set the continent of Antarctica between them.

     "And where's your gran?"

     "She went home, five minutes ago."

     There was the suggestion of a shrug.

     "Well, let's have tea, then we'll do what we have to do later. Kathleen, turn on the radio. Joe Loss is on at six."

     Joe Bosquet arrived to the sounds of the Joe Loss Dance Band playing 'When they begin the Beguine' and an atmosphere as dense and sluggish as the Lyle's Golden Syrup his sister was ladling onto her toast. He glanced at his mother; she glanced at Paul; Joe glanced at his brother. Paul sat on the settee, Lucky curled in his lap, the Wizard lying untouched and untouchable by his side.

<  7  >

     "Your brother slapped his sister, then his grandmother," his mother said.

     "Eh'm ... I'm not having tea, mum. Me and Geo ... George Gardiner and I are going to the show, the Rialto ... if that's okay. We'll have a pie supper afterwards ... if that's okay."

     "Nine o'clock, son."

     She raised her cheek. He kissed it. If his brother had glanced in their direction, he might have witnessed a momentary twist in Joseph's lower lip. He might have taken it for sympathy and treasured the moment forever. He did not look in their direction; it would only have signalled what he already knew: even the waters around Antarctica had frozen over.

     Paul had no illusions. He knew it was going to hurt. He'd forgotten how much it hurt until the first crack spread-eagled him across the bed. His arse was on fire. He pushed himself back and raised his bare backside again. Crack! He held his position this time, but it hurt, good Christ, it hurt. Even six of the best in school never felt like this, and you could at least blow on your bruised fingers afterwards. How could you blow on your own backside?

     Crack! He tried to hold his position but was again sent sprawling across the bed. The indignity was almost as painful as the blows themselves. Crap. Nothing could be as painful as the blows his mother administered with such detached accuracy. In school you could stroll back to your desk whispering, "It wisnae sair. Her belt wis saft." But the lady teachers at Ancrum Road Primary School did not keep six mill machines running from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon. Crack! Then came the tears.

     Paul buries his face in the quilt. He makes no effort to stop the tears, he couldn't if he tried, but he tries to muffle the sounds. His bum is ablaze; you could probably fry pork chops on it. But the pain is deeper than that, and far too complicated for him to analyse, though he tries, he does try. It is to do with being him and not being her, no, more properly it's to do with not being the him that he would like to be for her. He would like to be good, not for himself but for her, but he's not good, or at least not good enough for her. There is nothing and no one good enough for her.

<  8  >

     "Pull your pyjamas up. Get to bed."

     He hauls his pyjamas up from behind and crawls under the quilt. He faces the wall. He wants to look at her. He wants to take her image with him into the oblivion of sleep. He cannot face her. He has become so sensitised he hears Lucky patter across the living room, slip into the bedroom and launch herself onto the bed. She's been eating Kit-e-Kat; she stinks. She buries herself into the quilt down around his backside and takes advantage of the glow. He hears a click. It is the bedside lamp. Another click. The main light goes off. Something flutters and flops onto the bed.

     "There," says his mother, "now you can finish your story."

     The thought of reading brings bile to his throat.

     The bedroom door clicks shut.

     Wicked.

     I am wicked. My mother conceived me in sin, so I am wicked. I know I have to renounce the devil and all his wicked ways, but how can I do it if I'm born to wickedness?

     The catechism rolls around in his like marbles in a tobacco tin. The hours spent at Father Bone's knees are some consolation. He does so want to be good, to have his trespasses forgiven, and to forgive them that trespass against him - but not just yet.

     Wicked, yes, I'm wicked.

     What is your Name?

     What a stupid question.

     Who gave you this Name?

     He knows this one.

     My Godfathers and my Godmothers in my Baptism; where I was made ...

     The serrated blade of the bread knife saws its way through the rubber bands holding Bessie's head to her body.

<  9  >

     ... a member of Christ,

     A band snaps. A leg jerks, then hangs limp. The left arm dangles.

     ... the child of God,

     A second band snaps. A second leg jerks, then hangs limp. The right arm dangles.

     ... and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

     The third band snaps. Bessie's head, eyes wide open, falls onto the settee.

     Paul casts the headless doll aside and picks up Bessie's head. He has already prepared the altar on the living room table. He kneels down on the rug in front of the open fire and gingerly withdraws the poker. It has a wooden handle, but even so he can feel the heat course the length of the iron bar. From its tip a three inch length is red hot.

     He criss-crosses Bessie's cheeks with the poker. Creamy pink plastic curls into brown. The smell brings tears to his eyes. He sears two lines across her forehead. He reheats the tip, then forces it through one eye. He makes a small hole in the top of Bessie's head. The tricky part is next, melting the bottom of the hollow head in time to stick it to the tin tray in the middle of the table. He raises the tray with both hands, the head is firmly welded to the tray. Introibo ad altare dei ...

     Ceremoniously he plays the tray and its precious burden in the centre of the table. On either side stand a church candle. He melts the end of a third candle and fixes it to the top of Bessie's grotesquely abused head. The doll's single eye is still open.

     Question: What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?

     Answer: I mean an outward and visible sign

     of an inward and spiritual grace.

<  10  >

     Paul lies back on the settee. He feels sick, deliriously sick. He knows he should not go ahead with his plan. There is time to wrap everything inside an old Courier and dump it in the bins. Suspicion is not proof, and he can deny everything. He knows he will be punished; how severe the punishment will be, he does not want to try and imagine.

     Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it. It ticks away inside him like the clock in Captain Hook's crocodile. But there is a defiance in him equal to hers, equal to the whole of Whorterbank if necessary, equal to that of Lochee, Dundee, Scotland, the United Kingdom, Europe, the World, the Solar System, the Universe. Equal to God Himself if it comes to it. Remember what Dr Heinreich says, take deep breaths, deep deep breaths.

     The child-minder brought Kathleen home at five o'clock. It was cold outside, the promise of snow hung heavy in the evening air. Her cheeks were aglow. In the lobby Paul helped her off with her coat, her red, knitted balaclava with its white pom-pom, and her woollen mittens. Off slid her wellington boots.

     "Close your eyes," said Paul. "God's brought you something." For Kathleen, God held similar status to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy though His visits had not yet involved a home visit. Her eyes widened, the fingers of her left hand slipped into her mouth in an act of wonder.

     Paul took her shoulders and directed her gently into the living room. He positioned her in front of the table on which glowed the head of the second most important person in her life.

     "Now, open your eyes and see what God gave you."

     Kathleen opened her eyes,

     and screamed,

     and screamed,

     and screamed.

     That night Joe lets Paul sleep on the inside, closest to the radiator, furthest away from the bedroom door. He punches him in the kidneys again. Paul grunts in pain.

<  11  >

     "You're a bad bastard," hisses the older brother. He punches the younger again. "I hope mum never lets you read anither comic in this hoose." He drives the point of his knuckles in Paul's back.

     "You're wicked, that's what you are. They don't know it, but I do. You might be meh wee brither, but you're daft, daft and wicked."

     Paul grunts in assent. He knows he's wicked. They don't know just how wicked he is.

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