The front door slammed and they all looked up, nervously.
Bill Brennan didn’t bother with a greeting, but lurched over to the table, grabbed Jack and dragged him to his feet. Before Jack knew what was happening, his father had landed a heavy blow to his head that sent him reeling across the room. Annie Brennan jumped up and tried to remonstrate with her husband, but Bill had already lunged at Jack again, dragging him across the room by his shirt collar.
‘Don’t you go telling this family’s business to other people, you little snurge.’ He shook his son, still holding onto his collar with his left hand and raising his right to strike again.
Annie stepped between them and pushed Jack behind her, squaring up to her husband. ‘Leave the lad alone, Bill. There’s no call to hit him.’
‘Mind your business, woman.’ He shoved his wife out of the way, sending her crashing against the wall. ‘Get me the belt’ he shouted at Cecily.
‘What’s he done?’ asked Annie.
‘Tittle-tattled to the teacher about not wanting to be a priest. Bringing shame on the family. He’s a holy show.’
In a surge of defiance Jack blurted, ‘I’ll say what I like. I’m eighteen in a few weeks. I can make my own mind up. It’s my life!’
‘Not while you’re under my roof it isn’t. Not while you’re eating the food your brother and I work to put on this table, you lazy little sod. I’ve told you already. You’re going to be a priest and that’s the end of it. And you can start off by examining your conscience and apologising to your mother. Then you can get yourself to confession before Mass tomorrow.’
‘I’m not going to Mass.’
Bill’s face distorted with rage. He grabbed the belt from Cecily’s hands and turned to his other children. ‘You lot get upstairs. Bed!’
Tommy looked as though he was about to protest, but Cecily pushed him ahead of her out of the room, clamping her hand over his mouth.
Annie Brennan caught hold of Cecily’s arm as the children were leaving the room and hissed at her to run round to the Club and fetch Kenneth home.
Bill Brennan flexed the leather belt between his hands. ‘Come here. Take your punishment like a man.’ He swung the belt and brought it down hard across his son’s back.
Jack cried out as the edge of the buckle hit him with force. It was like being branded with fire. Before the next blow, he tried to dodge sideways but his father caught his arm. Years of heavy work as a plasterer had given Bill Brennan a muscle mass like granite and he pinned Jack against the wall and lashed another blow down on his back. Jack bit his tongue as the pain seared through him. Don’t cry out. Don’t give the bastard the satisfaction. Eyes blind with tears, vision distorted. There would be more to come. Blood in the mouth tasting of metal. Sting of leather on buttocks. Buckle smashed against bone. Whole body on fire. Burning, burning, cutting. Make him stop! God, make him stop.
In a sudden rush of adrenalin, he screamed at his father. ‘You’re nowt but a big bully, a miserable coward and I hate you. You want my life to be as empty as yours but it’s not going to be. There’d be plenty of money to pay for the books if you didn’t drink it all down the Club.'
The words filled him with new found courage and he turned to parry the next blow.
His father, unused to defiance, had a face as red as a beetroot and launched himself at Jack, but a fit of coughing overwhelmed him. He sank to his knees, desperately trying to take in air but was so overcome by coughing that he turned away and was sick on the floor. Annie grabbed her son, pushing him in front of her through the doorway.
‘Get over to our Maisie’s. Sleep there the night. He’ll have forgotten by morning.’
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