Mortal sin isn’t what it used to be.
There was a time in my childhood when my life was like a tightrope strung carelessly over the boiling pit of hell. A wobble here or a mistake there would lead to mortal sin and send me tumbling into the vast fiery depths where I would roast for all eternity.
‘What do you think hell is really like?’ Trixie whispered during the early morning Chapel service. ‘Sister Dolores says it’s awfully hot.’
‘I’d give anything to be hot.’ I shivered in my school uniform, sitting on the hard bench. It was England in the 1970s; the power cuts were in full swing and the school was icy. ‘I don’t feel so good…’ Black spots appeared before my eyes and Trixie thrust my head between my knees.
‘You’ll feel alright soon. Keep your head down!’ She patted my shoulder.
Sister Dolores had a cup of tea with sugar waiting for me in the refectory. My fainting fits in Chapel were legendary. I once asked whether I could have the cup of tea before the service, to stop me feeling so bad, but there was no exception to the overnight fast before communion.
‘Offer it up, offer your suffering up to the Lord,’ advised Sister Dolores.
I liked the idea that my suffering might put me in credit with God – maybe he would send me less temptations as I grew older and make my feet stick on that tightrope. Maybe he would give me a ‘Get out of jail free’ card.
Fast forward over forty years and here I am. I realise I haven’t thought about mortal sin or hell for ages. Everything can be forgiven now, can’t it? People do all sorts and no one cares. I look out through the windscreen of my car at the mangled red bicycle in front of me in the road. Where is the cyclist?
‘Anyone called the ambulance?’
‘Done it! Here in five.’
‘Should we move him?’
‘No – gotta protect the neck. That’s what they do on the telly.’
‘I’ve got a blanket.’
‘That’s good. Let’s put it over the kid.’
‘He’s opened his eyes.’
‘Mum! I want my mum!’
‘Here, we should check the driver’s OK.’
‘She’s completely white in the face.’
I open my car door and vomit neatly into the gutter.
‘Damn! Mind me shoes!’
‘You all right, love? You’re shivering.’
‘I feel so cold. Think I was going too fast.’ I stand up and lean against the body of my car. ‘You don’t wanna say that, love.’
‘Excuse me butting in; I’m a lawyer and I agree with what that chap said. Obviously it’s to your credit that you want to take the blame, however if you were my client, I’d have to advise you not to say anything yet.’
‘Yeah, don’t blame yourself. The kid came straight out in front of you.’
‘But I was in a hurry. Oh, is he all right?’ I totter to the front of the car where the tiny child stares up at me.
‘Mum! Want Mum!’
‘Anyone know him? Anyone called his mum?’
‘At least he’s conscious. Where the hell’s that ambulance? I called it seven minutes ago.’ I feel myself going.
‘’Ere! She’s fainting!’
‘Sit down love, quick, here on the pavement.’
‘Put your head down.’
‘I can hear the ambulance!’
‘There’s a police car too.’
Within minutes the child is secured on a stretcher and slotted into the ambulance. I dig my nails into the centre of each hand as hard as I can, leaving deep welts. Let him be all right. I’ll do anything if you let him live. This time.
A young policeman crouches beside me.
‘We need to talk to you Madam, when you feel up to it.’
‘I was rushing to work,’ I lied. ‘Didn’t have time for breakfast. It’s all my fault – will he live?’
‘Ambulance crew think he’ll be fine Madam. They’re taking him to hospital to give him the once over but all the signs are good.’
Tears burst from my eyes, drowning the image of yellow and red flames leaping up from the bottomless pit and licking my feet. My tightrope disintegrated a long time ago.
‘Here, love, have this. It’s from my café, over there. I saw the whole thing. I’ve put three sugars in it, the tea I mean. Sugar’s good for shock.’
‘You are so kind,’ I murmur, fumbling for my purse. ‘You must let me pay for the tea.’ ‘You put your money away. It’s the least I can do – you’ve suffered enough.’ So it would be all right then, this time.
There’s something the nuns forgot to tell us, but I worked it out for myself over time: it’s not a mortal sin if no one finds out. Other people judge you, not God.
Today, when I saw the kid veering off the pavement onto the road in front of me, I thought why should others have a child when I never did, a lovely boy like that, on his red bicycle. With his freckles and his blue lace-up shoes and a bell to ring. I put my foot on the accelerator then, even though I knew it was madness and I could be caught.
But it has turned out all right for me. And for the kid.
I’ll be more careful when I try again. Ram the car that bit harder, ensure the incident is fatal. Then make a quick getaway. People do it all the time, don’t they? Hit and runs – they’re always in the papers. Today was just the dress rehearsal.
Mortal sin isn’t what it used to be.
Published in Issue #15