Whether it's the pink sauce on my cheeks, or the glaring red pustules, Mam says not to put a finger on my face until she washes it with a wet cloth and applies Sloan's Horse Liniment—the Old Man's cure for everything from the common cold to the Black death.
The Old Man works a piece of gristle between his false teeth and a low growl comes from his mouth as he struggles with the meat. As I lick the Marie Rose sauce from a prawn he resorts to putting the knife in his mouth to loosen some meat from his teeth and Mam sighs the way she does when I do something wrong. He raises a bushy eyebrow and continues to worry away at his teeth, daring Mam to say something.
“How many valves are in a prawn's heart?” I ask Mam, afraid I'm eating all sorts of queer organs I know nothing about.
“Do you know I haven't the foggiest notion,” she says. “But I do know their hearts are on top of their heads.”
“God, that's fantastic,” I say, amazed at all the wonderful things Mam knows. She learns lots of them from her set of Everyman Encyclopedias on the bookshelves in the dining room. I love the green covers and the gilt numbers on the spines of the encyclopedias, or is it encyclopediae? I think Father Declan said something about Latin plurals ending in —aie in class a while ago.
When we go home I want to explore the volume that has lots of stuff about astronomy, the formation of suns and how they travel through the universe at dizzying speeds. But the Old Man is our sun and Mam and me orbit about him like two helpless planets, the anger he shows when he's unhappy pitched at us the way he launches the small white golf ball into the stratosphere. But for now I resist the urge to scratch my impetigo and fork another prawn with its dead heart into my mouth.