Patrick stepped off the bus and onto a burning street. Barricades of blazing tires choked Main Road as he made his way to his former home, sending plumes of black smoke into the dying day. The smell of petrol clung to the air. Flames danced from all sides of the road, making it difficult to know where to tread. He had been heading to his new place – a small bedsit tacked  onto  someone’s  house,  about  five  minutes  from  the home he used to share with Mary.

The bus ride home had started uneventfully, but with each new passenger the chatter grew. The children had staged a demonstration at the local high school. They were peaceful, but the police had opened fire anyway. One child, maybe two, had been shot; others were missing. Patrick listened, not daring to ask questions. Grace was fine, of that he was sure. She wouldn’t be caught up in a demonstration of that sort. His daughter was far too timid a creature. She preferred to stay in the background and not be noticed.

Yet she also had a wilful streak in her. Mostly she did what she was told, obeyed orders without talking back. But then, out of the blue, there’d be a day when she’d just dig her heels in, refuse. She was like Mary in that way, although not as insolent. When it happened, the child’s defiance was all the more infuriating because it surprised him, coming out of nowhere as it seemed to. Like that one time she’d disappeared for half a day into the bushes near the airport. He had looked all over for her, combing the streets trying to find her – she had never ventured away from home before.

Then just as the sun was setting she had reappeared, with a smirk on her face as if nothing had happened. He had not been able to control his rage. Yes, she could  be  defiant  in  the  most  surprising  ways.  But  he  didn’t think someone with her innate fearfulness would go near such trouble as had happened at the school today.

Yet, as the bus drew nearer to the township, uncertainty gnawed at him. If something had happened to Grace,  he  would surely have heard by now. Mary or the principal would have called him at work, he reasoned. But he had just started this new job as a mechanic at JB’s Autos, and now he couldn’t remember whether he had given Mary his new phone number, what with the trouble between them.

Patrick tried to stay calm, picturing the girl safe in bed, or watching television in the living room. That’s probably what she was doing right now. Still a layer of sweat beaded his body. Waves of fear rose from his belly to his chest. What if the unthinkable had happened? He had already lost one child. He wouldn’t be able to stand the loss of another.

He shot a little prayer heavenward. Please, God, let her be okay. Then he laughed at himself, for hadn’t he long ago forsaken God? Or God forsaken him? But habits die hard. Give me a child for the first seven years of their life, and I’ll give you a Catholic for the rest of their life, the brothers at school used to say, only half joking.

Most of Patrick’s young life had been testimony to that sentiment. By the age of ten he had been adept at leading three younger siblings to Mass each Sunday. Then there were novenas on Tuesdays, praying of the rosary Thursdays, and catechism on Sundays. He’d served as an altar boy, helped his mother when she volunteered to wash and iron the priests’ robes at the local parish. He’d dutifully taken himself to confession every two weeks, making sure, in advance, to examine his heart and conscience for the tiniest speck of wrongdoing. Because sin left unchecked, even the seed of sin, destroyed lives; and he, Patrick de Leeuw, had determined from the age of reason that he would live a life worthy of redemption.

Not that he deserved redemption. He knew himself, even as a young boy, to be tarnished with the stain of sin. He was a lowly sinner like all the rest of them, but he had been taught that redemption could be found through striving for goodness, and humble supplication before God. It had been drummed into him: always know that you are a sinner; never forget that. Work hard to atone for that sin. He always did. He would go to confession, determined to start anew and not sin again, as the priest exhorted.

But then the problem of sinning would creep in, again and again. Always, even moments after atonement, the very second after the priest’s absolution, he would find himself doing wrong again, or find the shadow of a bad thought flitting through his mind. He would be stained and dirty again. He would feel guilt and remorse, and the priest’s confessional would not   be close enough to absolve him as quickly as he needed.

The maintenance of a state of sinlessness became increasingly difficult. And then the thing at school happened, and he’d been so sullied that he could never again think of himself as clean, sinless again. Certain sins could not be forgiven, especially if one had willingly participated in them. At the age of fifteen, God left him, and Patrick gave up trying to find him again.

For a year afterwards his torment knew no bounds. Although he was keeping up the dizzying cycle of pretence – daily Mass, Sunday Mass, novenas, confession – he knew in his heart that he was not good enough for God, would never be good enough. It didn’t matter that he tried. Wracked with anguish, Patrick tried to imagine the life, and afterlife, that lay before him. Damnation, eternal damnation awaited him.

Contemplating his fate, the fear of God became permeated with a slow-rising anger. Why would God have created him this way – stained and flawed – knowing full well that the attainment of purity would never be his? And why had God let these things happen to him? Was his life a cruel joke, and did God watch on in amusement as he strove and failed in an endless, agonising cycle? Was that God? If it was, then he wanted no part of God. Fuck that. This decision relieved him.

And so he came to take pleasure in his sinfulness, enjoying  his wilful defiance. He wallowed in his soul’s squalor and  found a deep satisfaction in examining the many facets of his wrongdoing, flaunting them in the world’s face. Fuck you, church, and fuck you, God!

He  took  up  drinking,  grew  to  enjoy it. Yet even in his most drunken excess, a kernel of fear remained. It was there, worrying him, like a tiny grain of sand in his shoe, a dull undercurrent to his life and pleasures. God was watching, waiting. Although he had turned his back on God many times, the knowledge of a supreme being watching his every move had never really left him. Recently he had tried going to the big evangelical tents. They were so different, much happier. He had even gotten baptised, but deep inside, couldn’t shake the feeling that he was faking it.

God was really hollow you could make him anything you wanted him to be. Patrick had never felt his presence. But at times like these – where was the girl? – he still went to God, like an addict reaching for a fix, and prayed like a child with blind belief. Did God ever answer him? He couldn’t say. For years he’d had Mary. Some would have called her a prayer answered. But the impulse to do things he knew was wrong, the vertiginous pull of pleasure, was often stronger than his love for her.

He was twenty-one when they’d married, determined that his life would be different from the one he’d known growing up in the cramped street where everyone knew each other’s business. He would treat her like gold, unlike the way he had seen his father treat his mother, sentencing her to an early grave. The blows he’d witnessed inflicted upon his mother had broken more than the bones in her tiny body: he had seen, along with the bruises, the destruction of her spirit, her light being snuffed out bit by bit, until there was nothing left but a shell of a woman who, at forty-five, succumbed to a stroke. The eldest child, Patrick had despised his father for what he’d done to his mother. He despised himself even more for his inability to protect her.

Things would be different with Mary. There was a sadness in her which evoked in him the urge to protect, to try again where he had failed with his mother. But Mary’s sullen, hard side, her refusal to be dominated, vied with her childlike softness that so enchanted him. She could be hard to her core, capricious in her whims, fluctuating often in manner between guileless, beautiful child and bitch. She could play on his sympathies one moment, elicit cosseting and affection, and then reject him with her very next breath. Patrick wasn’t always sure which Mary he’d encounter.

***

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