The day I swore on the bible
Confessing to Joe
It was 1963, I was seven years old and my brother Joe was one year older. However, in many ways he was much more than a year older. Joe's knowledge of the ways of the world and the teachings of the Catholic church were vastly superior to mine. We were part of an Anglo-Irish family of eight children and were raised as practising Catholics. Joe and I shared a bedroom at the top of a big, draughty ,Victorian, London townhouse. Joe was my protector and I came to rely on him for getting me out of all sorts of scrapes. This time I was in really big trouble. I was in danger of being cast into eternal damnation and the flames of Hell. How would Joe save me this time? Well, that's the story I am about to tell.
We had just returned from a family holiday in Ireland and as was usual still had a number of Irish coins in our pockets. We wouldn't be able to spend them in England because they were classified as foreign coins. That day Joe noticed I had returned from the shops with a suspiciously large quantity of bubblegum. Under interrogation, I admitted to using the Irish coins in a bubblegum machine. Joe asked me for the exact location of the machine. When I told him, my whole world fell apart. Joe explained that this particular shopkeeper was so fed up with people stealing from him, "Cos, that's what it is Sean, stealing", that he had installed a secret camera to trap the thieves. My face was going to be displayed in every shop in town, along with the notice, " Do not sell to this boy, he is a thief". Joe informed me that, not only was I about to become a social outcast, but that my mortal soul was at that very moment facing the flames of Hell. I can tell you now that I almost collapsed with the shock at hearing such terrifying news.
Luckily for me Joe had a plan that would not only spare me from social humiliation, incredibly he would also be able to save my mortal soul. I couldn't believe my luck when Joe said that for a very small percentage of my future pocket money ( I didn't even know what a percentage was, but I let that pass) he would speak on my behalf to the shopkeeper. As luck would have it Joe was a personal friend of this shopkeeper. Apparently, Joe had once foiled an armed robbery in that very same shop. I had no idea Joe had done this but I wasn't surprised at my big brother's heroics. That's the kind of thing big brothers do and they don't go around boasting about it. Joe's plan was to tell the shopkeeper that he had a little brother who was " not quite the full shilling, a sandwich short of a picnic", in short, slightly mentally challenged. This would put an end to the criminal matter. But what about my mortal soul? Joe began to explain how he could help to resolve this too. Wow, how lucky was I to have such a brother.
Obviously if I died in my sleep that night and the way I was feeling it was certainly not to be ruled out, I would go straight to hell. As it turned out, I didn't get any sleep that night. I already knew that if you lost something the Catholic way to find it was to pray to St Anthony, the patron saint of lost property. Well Joe told me he knew of a patron saint that could help in my case. I couldn't believe that there might be a patron saint for bubble gum thieves. Sure enough there wasn't. However, Joe told me there was a patron saint for lost causes and he would pray to this saint and help me stay alive until I could attend confession on Saturday . Joe said he couldn't tell me this Saint's name in case I tried to intercede on my own behalf. You're just not allowed to do that. My big brother's grasp of the finer details of Catholic theology was truly amazing.
There was just one final formality to straighten out. As I said before , we lived in a big draughty house and during the winter time you could see your breath floating around the room. It was seriously cold at nightime. When we had finished reading our comics, (I favoured the Beano whilst Joe read something much more intellectual - it was called something like "Look and Learn") one of us would have to get out of our warm bed and step onto the cold lino to turn off the light. The new arrangement was that I should turn off the light every night in November and December. Obviously I jumped at the chance to pay such a small price to get my life back. All I had to do was switch the light off when Joe uttered the words "Turn off the light now!" I was surprised that Joe said I would have to swear to do this on the Holy Bible but that's what I did.
November came round soon enough and it sure was cold. It was time to get out of my warm bed and turn that light off. Joe said he had better remind me exactly what I had sworn to do. Well really , how difficult is it to carry out such a simple task? Nevertheless, Joe said to remember I had to turn the light off as soon as he said the word "now" not earlier or not later. He didn't need to remind me that because I had sworn on the bible to do this the consequence of failure would once again leave me in mortal danger.
You have no idea how difficult it was to switch off the old fashioned light switch precisely on the command of such a short word as "now". It took me over 100 attempts to switch the light off that night before I finally succeeded. I know this because each night Joe would show me written proof. He said he was going to record my progress and that I should aim to get it down to fifty attempts by December. He said he had absolute faith in my ability to meet this target. It felt good to have a brother who believed in you. December came and sure enough I had got it down to just under 50 attempts. I seemed to peak at around 25 but on some bitterly cold nights it even slipped back into the fifties. Joe was now producing graphs on my performance. Sometimes he even managed to predict with uncanny accuracy how many attempts it would take me to switch off that light.
Years later a number of sporting coaches remarked on what quick hands I had. Tennis coaches, badminton coaches and even rugby coaches praised my hand to eye co-ordination. Those two months of turning that light off had paid off. So you see, big brothers know what they are doing. Joe not only saved me from criminal charges and eternal damnation, he also helped me to succeed at sport. My brother Joe was a true hero. I still love him to bits.
You can read more family stories such as why I am scared of mice