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A Family Matter

John Patrick McHugh

It was the blood on the jacket that Mac remembered most. How dark it was and how much darker it made the black leather look. It dripped down from the studded collar, along the right sleeve and it hung from the golden zipper and teeth. It was like the jacket had been shot rather than his uncle. He would remember that bloodied jacket more clearly than the roar of his grandfather’s shotgun, or the cries of his howling mother, and even more clearly than the ripping open of Patrick’s face.

After the shot, when his uncle lay on the wooden floor of his grandparents’ hallway, his arms stretched out like a faceless Jesus, Mac did not grieve. Hunched against the kitchen doorway, he could see his uncle was dead and gone. His brain and pieces of skull were on the walls either side of his body, sliding down just above the skirting board. But that jacket, that jacket seemed like it was alive. Wounded and bleeding, but still alive. Mac knew he could save it.

Mammy was screaming at this point. Screaming as she searched for the telephone. She was on her knees, her shaking hand having knocked the phone off the table in the hallway. Paddy’s oozing blood stained the sleeves of her pink dressing gown as she frisked the floor. Not wearing her glasses, she was practically blind and when she was drunk, it was even worse. Mac’s grandfather, Frank O, was walking back to the kitchen, after giving his son a good kick to make sure he had finished the job. Droplets of blood were splattered on his fat nose and forehead and his right eye was plum-coloured and closed. He winked at Mac as he passed. The sharp stench of whiskey hung off him and the double-barrelled shotgun was tucked under his left arm, bright specks of crimson staining its barrels. Mac watched as Frank O sat in the wicker chair beside the stove and placed the shotgun tenderly between his legs, before he found himself drawn back towards the dying jacket. He had to act fast.

Mac took two unsteady steps forward. He was pissed, blurry-eyed and an acute pain throbbed in his right temple; the hangover was already hitting. Deciding to give up on his legs, Mac slumped to the floor. There, after taking a deep breath which sent some of Patrick’s blood up his nose, Mac began dragging himself towards the jacket. Blood was now spilling onto its torn cuffs, and the battered elbow pads were soaked in the red juice. Mac stopped when he heard voices coming from the kitchen.

Frank O was up, filling the kettle. He was singing an old rebel tune to himself and his right shoulder looked far larger than the left. They would learn later that his shoulder had dislodged during the recoil of the shot. Grandmother was kneeling and praying on the floor beside him. Mac could just see her slippers and skinny legs peeping out from the arch of the door. Her voice was loud as she spat out the words as Gaeilge: ‘A Naomh-Mhuire, a Mháthair Dé, guigh orainn na peacaigh, anois, agus ar uair ár mbáis.’ Black and white photos of Collins, Jack Charlton and the Virgin gazed down from all corners of the room and the window was wide open; letting in the mid-morning breeze. Mac’s father Billy had awoken too, naked, upon hearing the gunshot. He stood in the kitchen doorway looking in at his brother-in-law, smiling at his corpse, nodding and smiling. Mac began again to drag himself towards the dying jacket.

That bit closer, he could really see the damage. The whole middle of Patrick’s face was gone. It looked like mince, pink and purple mince. It was just a hole, and then Paddy’s wild hair. When he was alive, Patrick would never pat down that hair, never wet it into place. It was always sticking out like weeds on a road. It suited a half-missing face, Mac thought, that hair. But the strangest thing about Patrick then, apart from the half-missing face and the gore and blood, was that he looked OK. His jeans were not full of the usual stains of grass and ash and they didn’t smell much of piss. He had a new shirt on too, which was white (before the blood) and his finger nails, usually full of dirt or baccie, had recently been cleaned. And the leather jacket, though wounded, looked so noble. Mac almost thought the body handsome.

Wisps of smoke still rose from Patrick’s face. He was dead the poor fool, poor Paddy, but the jacket was still alive. Mac gently pulled the sleeves free from both arms. There was still warmth in Patrick’s skin and when Mac got past the stink of smoke and fresh blood, he could smell the alcohol. Once he had the sleeves free, Mac began to push his uncle over slightly to his side. An empty naggin rattled in the back pocket of Patrick’s jeans as he started to move.

They had shared it only an hour ago, the two of them already pissed. Laughing outside the house, drinking it straight. Both happy and dancing in the dawn light. He was always good for a naggin was Paddy. Mac remembered getting one off him the morning of his First Holy Communion. Paddy and Mac drinking it with a can of 7UP. Laughing away then, too. And Mac remembered Father Murphy knocking the host off his tongue once he smelt the stinging scent of booze. But sure that’s the way it goes, Mac thought, Paddy is gone now. Like his uncle before him and his great-grandfather before that. But the jacket, the jacket was there to be earned.

Mammy was still moving like a blind cow on the floor, but, as Mac got to work on saving the jacket, she had found the phone and held it to her ear. Wailing louder than before she called the Guards. Repeating, ‘It was my own brother and father, Mary and Joseph, my own flesh, I thought it was finished with, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’.

Frank O suddenly shouted, ‘Does anyone else want a cup of tea?’

Mac’s father said he did. Still grinning away to himself, still naked. ‘Two sugars, Frank O, plenty of milk now, please’.

The smug grin was soon gone when he saw Mac’s pale and sweaty hands grabbing at the jacket. ‘Ya whore, what the fuck you think you’re doing?’ He rushed toward his son, slipping in the blood as he did so. And that lapse was all Mac needed. Panting, Mac snatched hold of both sleeves, stood, and pulled the leather jacket out from under his uncle’s back and legs. More blood seeped from Paddy. Darker now, like red wine. Billy, his face half-caked in blood, launched himself towards the jacket and grasped hold of its studded collar. The two struggled before Mac wrenched the jacket free and punched Billy’s crooked nose, feeling it shatter. His father fell backwards over poor Paddy’s corpse.

Frank O was now in the doorway, stirring a teaspoon in his mug, Grandmother behind him folding and unfolding a hand towel.

‘The tea is ready, folks.’ Frank O nodded at Mac. ‘Jacket will look well on you, Mac, once you get her nice and clean. Long few years ahead of you so, Billy.’

Billy shouted, ‘He isn’t fuckin’ keeping it. I can tell ya that much. I’m not letting it happen again and again. Not with my own flesh and blood.’

Mac ran towards the living-room and backdoor. The jacket balled under his arm, its blood falling as he went. Onto the rug, the Sunday newspapers, and onto a few photos of dead relatives.

Outside, Mac sprinted towards An Sliabh Mor Donn. The mountain that stood behind the little house. That stood high above the whole of the Island.

The ground was marshy as he raced for the summit. All brown reeds and yellow clumps of ferns. And the mountain had a sharp slope so Mac moved with his left hand out in front, grabbing for any hold in the muck. He could feel the jacket’s pulse getting faster and faster and he could hear his father cursing his name. He didn’t notice the weather. It could have been raining or it could have been sunny. He just ran. Up and up.

At the top, he squatted and laid the leather jacket flat down on the earth. Taking off his shirt and using the flesh of his hands, Mac dried the jacket. Dried the studs and gold zipper and the wrinkled sleeves and the pockets and the elbow pads. He cleaned each inch with spit and made the jacket shine again.

Mac could hear from below sirens and the crunch of wheels on gravel, and the calls of Mammy, and the bark of Grandmother as she tried to listen to the wireless, and the sipping of tea as Frank O explained to the two Guards that it was a family dispute, a family matter, and he could hear still the blood dribbling out of poor Paddy’s head.

Frank O would be arrested and released within two weeks, on the grounds of compassion or misunderstanding, it was never clear. He would die before the year was out, a very happy man. Grandmother would become senile and unbearable upon her husband’s death and so a pillow would be placed on her head as she slept three days after Frank O’s funeral. Mac and his family would move into the empty little house soon after. Billy would take up the farming, the shotgun kept above his bed at night. Mammy would drink, pray and steal Communion from the church. And Mac would open the lid of poor Paddy’s coffin on the day of his funeral and kiss that hollowed face one last time.

But this was to come, and that day Mac was high above all chains of the future.

High above all, atop that mountain. The Island seemed to stretch out in front of him. It seemed never to end. An entirety of brown and bog and dots of white with rising smoke. Mac put on the jacket. Its blood was dry and crisp on his hands. It fitted as if Patrick had been minding it for him. And wearing that leather jacket, Mac saw what his kingdom would be.

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