The Liberties, Dublin, 1905
Kitty O’Kane dreamed of a kind husband and a just life; what she had was haddock water for supper and a dribble of her own blood, seen at close quarters, on the toe of her father’s scuffed boot.
Big boots he had, sturdy. Good kicking boots. She tried to raise her head from the straw, but it was too much effort. She turned her head sideways; her ma stood in the doorway, she had her apron bunched in her fist, Mary in her arms, Liam and Ann peering from behind her skirts. Sean sat in the corner, a moldy blanket over his head, sobbing. No help for her there.
It’d been a good hard punch, that took her down, and she hadn’t seen it coming. Already she couldn’t see a thing out of her left eye, but if she squinted with her other, she could see Liam shouting something at her daddy. Strange how she couldn’t hear anything. Perhaps he’d sent her deaf.
She looked up at the wall, the little pictures of Jesus with his Sacred Heart and Mother Mary beside him, a little red lamp lighting them up. Pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. Or maybe save me from death at all, if it’s not too much trouble.
Now her daddy was taking off his belt; Liam tried to hold on to his arm, and got a backhander for it. No point arguing with him when he was filthy drunk like this. She saw his lips moving, his face red and twisted like it got sometimes, she still couldn’t hear what he was saying, but she could smell him, smell the drink, a sour smell, and bitter like hate.
She tried to wriggle into the corner. Couldn’t move her arms much, but her legs worked well enough, and she reckoned if she could get into the corner, she’d make a smaller target for him. The strap was all right. She’d had the strap enough times; if he didn’t beat her with the buckle end, there’d be no harm done.
Just bear it, Kit. Think of something else and it will be over.
The walls were a brick color—pink distemper her ma called it, some kind of powder they’d mix in water. There was a great smell off it. The wood was buggy, and up close she could see the little brown bugs that were getting through the walls. She wondered where they came from.
The strap of the belt slashed across her hip. Her body jerked a bit; there was no controlling it. He was too drunk to aim properly, so that was a blessing then. Just stay away from my face, she thought. It’ll be bad enough having to explain away this black eye at school tomorrow.
She got tired of crawling, so she lay there and waited for the next stripe. She could hear things again now, the horn from an ocean steamer leaving the docks. Wouldn’t she love to be away on that one right now. If I ever leave the Liberties, she promised herself, I’m never coming back.
Liam and her mother were screaming now. Her daddy was yelling something too, but she couldn’t make out what it was he was saying, something about her answering back. Was that what she did? She couldn’t remember anything before he started banging on her, but answering back, that sounded like the kind of thing that she’d do.
She could smell beer and blood, that sour, copper stink of the two together. She heard the slap of the belt, realized he must still be hitting her. It didn’t hurt like it should. If he stopped now, as beatings go, well it wouldn’t be too bad.
So that was hope then. She started crawling again, inched herself further into the corner, curled up like a bug tossed in a fire. Don’t look up at him, don’t yell out, don’t provoke him. Pretend it’s not happening, pretend you’re on that ship, the sea wind is in your hair, salt and cold, and you’re headed out to the white waves and only the gulls are screaming.
“You’d be a fookin’ little devil,” he yelled at her. “Now that’ll be teaching ya some respect!”
She watched his big boots stamp away, he shoved her ma aside, little Liam was still screaming at him. Be careful, Liam, you’re not too little to get hit, boy, not in this family. She felt the sea move beneath her, not got her sea legs yet, maybe going to be sick. And there was new straw on the floor today; Ma would be cross.
“Oh God in heaven, what’s he done to you, Kitty?” her ma said and squatted down beside her.
Done what he always does, she thought. What all daddies do. And she closed her eyes and let the great sea take her, away from Dublin, away from the Liberties, and away from her daddy’s raw, red fists.