A short story by Edna O’Brien
Mama and I have been invited to the Coughlans’. It is to be Sunday evening at seven o’clock. I imagine us setting out in good time, even though it is a short walk to the village where they live and Mama calling out to me to lift my shoes so that the high wet grass won’t stain the white patent. I expect that Rita, the maid, will admit us and we will be ushered into the room where the piano is. It is a black piano. I saw it the day the Coughlans moved here, saw four men drag it in, sweating and swearing, and when it was put down it emitted a little sound of its own, a ghostly broken tune.
They have been here almost four months. Mr. Coughlan works in the bank, and though they have a car, he walks to work each morning, setting out punctually at twenty minutes to nine and carrying a lizard-skin attaché case. He probably walks for the exercise, as he is somewhat podgy, and there are always beads of perspiration on his forehead. He is slightly bald. Adjacent to the bank is the River Graney, and faithfully he leans over the stone bridge to look down at the brown, porter-colored water, or perhaps at the little fish, perches and minnows, that are carried along in the swift current. He ignores most people, giving a mere nod to one or two notables. He is not popular. His wife, on the other hand, is the cynosure of all. She is like a queen. There is not one woman who is not intrigued by her finery, her proud carriage, and her glacial smile. Every Sunday when she comes in to Mass, people gawp and nudge, as she goes up the aisle to sit as near as possible to the altar. She has a variety of smart fitted costumes and oodles of accessories and brooches. When they first came it was February and she wore a teddy bear coat that had brown leather buttons with cracks in them. They looked like fallen horse chestnuts. Soon after that, she wore a brown bouclé coat that came almost to her ankles and she wore it open so as to reveal a contrasting colored dress in muted orange. She has a butterfly brooch, an amber brooch with a likeness of a beetle, a long-leafed marcasite brooch, and a turquoise wreathed with little seed pearls. Her first name is Drew. Her sister Effie lives with them and she is far plainer, with only two outfits, both tweed. She wore a fox collar some Sundays, and the glassy eyes of the fox staring out looked quite sinister. She was in a convent, but left before taking her final vows and for reasons that remain muddied. She prays very steadfastly, eyes shut tight, and she keeps kissing her metal crucifix. Drew on the other hand looks straight ahead at the altar, as if she is perceiving some mystery in it. I try to maneuver a seat in front of her, so that I can turn round and stare at her, and take note of her little habits and how often she swallows. She blinks with such languor.
Mama says that we will have a scone before setting out, as we are not certain if we are invited for eats. We might go in by the side entrance, where there is a damp path under a canopy of tarpaulin and a lawn roller that is never moved. It depends if there is somebody already looking from behind the window. My father has not been invited, so it seems that it is an occasion for ladies only. It will probably be Drew, Effie, Mama, and me. The little daughters are away at boarding school. They are twins, Colette and Cissy, and I am glad that they are absent, as I might be put in a separate room with them, banished from the company of the grown-ups. I will not say a word. I will not need to.
Our being invited is a miracle and came about in an accidental way. The Coughlans were having a supper party. The whole parish knew about it. They were having prawn cocktail to start, then suckling pig with applesauce, followed by chocolate éclairs and cream. Rita boasted of it in the butcher’s, the hardware, and the three grocery shops. The guests were other banking people from far afield and a hunting lady separated from her husband and known as a bit of a card. Yet on the day of their supper party, calamity struck. The cream in the creamery had turned sour. It seems the vats had not been scalded properly and all the contents had to be thrown out. Rita went to the various shops and all she could get was one tin of cream, with a picture of a red carnation on the label. Mrs. Coughlan was livid. She said one does not give tinned cream to people of note and that fresh cream must be found. Rita thought of us. She knew us well and used to come the odd Saturday to help my mother, but once she went to them she did not want to know us and looked the other way if ever we met. Nevertheless, she arrived with a jug and a half a crown in her hand and Mama said coldly, “Hello stranger.” Rita said that they were in a terrible pickle, not being able to get fresh cream, and might Mama, in the goodness of her heart, help out. Mama did not say yes at once. She took Rita to task for being a turncoat and for not telling us that she would no longer come of a Saturday to scrub. Rita was very flustered, said she knew she had done wrong, that she was awake nights over it and was biting her nails. She showed her nails, which were certainly bitten down to the quick. Mama then got the white jug. It was a lovely long slender jug, with a picture of a couple in sepia, standing, modestly, side by side. There were three large pans of cream put to settle in the dairy and with the tips of her fingers, Mama skimmed the cream into the jug. She did it perfectly, making sure that no milk got in. A separated milk was a bluish white in color, not like the butter-yellow color of the cream. She refused the money. Having been tart with Rita, she had now melted and gave her a bag of cooking apples in case they were short.
We heard that the party went off wonderfully. There were four cars with different registrations parked in the street outside and a singsong after dinner. One lady guest could be heard in the public house across the road singing “There’s a bridle hanging on the wall and a saddle in a lonely stall,” screeching it, as the men in the pub attested to.
Mama says I am to wear my green knitted dress with the scalloped angora edging and carry my cardigan in case it gets chilly on the way home. It is about a half a mile’s walk. She herself is going to wear her tweedex suit — a fawn, flecked with pink, one that she knitted for an entire winter. I know in her heart that she hopes the conversation will get around to the fact of her knitting it. Indeed, if it is admired, she will probably offer to knit one for Mrs. Coughlan. She is like that. Certainly she will make Drew a gift of a wallet, or a rug, as she goes to the new technical school at night to master these skills. Nothing would please her more than that they would become friends, the Coughlans coming to us and a big spread of cakes and buns and sausage rolls and caramel custards in their own individual ramekins. She says that we are not to mention anything about our lives, the geese that got stolen up by the river at Christmastime, my father’s tantrums, or above all, his drinking sprees, which blessedly have tapered off a bit. My father will insist that his supper be prepared before we leave and a kettle kept simmering on the stove, so that he can make a pot of tea. We will have put the hens and chickens in their hatches and, the evening being still bright, we are bound to have trouble in coaxing them in. Quite soon after we arrive, it will be evident whether or not there are to be refreshments. There will be a smell from the kitchen, or Rita bustling, or Effie going in and out to oversee things.
We went. Effie greeted us and saw us into the drawing room, where Mrs. Coughlan sat upright on a two-seater sofa with gilt-edged arms. She wore green georgette and a long matching scarf which swathed her neck and part of her chin. The picture instantly brought to mind was one I had seen in a book at school, featuring an English lady swathed in white robes and crossing the desert. She let out a light, brittle laugh and her hand, when it took mine, was weightless as a feather. “Such pretty ringlets,” she said, and laughed again. I was hearing her voice for the very first time, and it was like sound coming from a music box, sweet and tinkling. Turning to Mama, she said how much she had been looking forward to the visit and how terribly kind it was to give her that delicious cream. Instantly, they had a topic. They discussed whether cream should be whipped with a fork or with a beater, and they agreed that a beater in the hands of a mopey girl, no names mentioned, could lead to having a small bowl of puddiny butter.
There was a fire in the room, with an embroidered screen placed in front of it. The various lit lamps had shades of wine red, with masses of a darker wine fringing. It was like a room in a story, what with the fire, the fire screen, the fenders and fire irons gleaming, and the picture above the black marble mantelpiece of a knight on horseback breaching a storm. I sat on a low leather pouffe, looking at Drew and then looking out the window at the setting sun, from which thin spokes of golden light irradiated down, then back on her, whose perfume permeated the room, and despite her bemused smile and the different and affecting swivel of hand and wrist, her eyes looked quite sad. I could not understand why she was swathed in that scarf, unless it was for glamour, as the room was quite warm. Effie was extremely nervy — she would begin a sentence but not finish it and from time to time slap herself smartly and mutter, much to the irritation of her sister. It struck me then that she probably had to leave the convent on account of her nerves. Moreover, she seemed on the verge of tears, even though she was telling us how well they had settled in, how they loved the canal and the boating, loved their walks in the wood road, and had made friends with a few people.
“Hugh doesn’t love it,” Mrs. Coughlan said, adding that he was too much of a loner. This gave Mama another opening in the conversation, admitting that after she had come back from America — something she was most anxious to be let known — she too had felt herself to be an outsider. Mrs. Coughlan exclaimed and said, “But why ever did you come home?” Mama explained that she had merely come on a holiday, and had got engaged, and soon after got married. A little sigh escaped them both. Mrs. Coughlan said that Hugh would not be joining us, since he was painfully shy and a bad mixer. I expect he was in his own den doing figures, or maybe reading. She then uncrossed her legs and lifted the folds of green georgette a fraction, so that to my heart’s content I was able to see her beautiful shoes. They were cloth shoes of a silver filigree, with purple thread running through the silver, and there was a glittery buckle on the instep. I could have knelt at them. Effie then excused herself, looking more teary than ever. Mama welcomed that, because I felt that she wanted to get confidential with Mrs. Coughlan and to share views about marriage, childbearing, and the change of life.
“It’s not a bed of roses, by any means,” Mama starkly announced, and Mrs. Coughlan concurred. She even became a little indiscreet, said that on her wedding day three unfortunate things happened — the edge of her veiling got caught on the church railing as they posed for the photographs, the handle of the knife broke in the wedding cake as she cut it, and an old aunt swore that she saw a fat mouse move across the dining room of the hotel floor and went into hysterics. Then, casually, she mentioned that she had been married off in her twenties. I reckoned that she was about thirty-five or -six. She said that small towns were stifling and that bank folk only talked shop. Moreover, every few years Hugh got transferred to another town, so they could never put down roots and it was all ghastly. Mama sympathized, said she had been in the same place for many years but now loved her farm, her kitchen garden, and her house, and would not be parted from them. Then she slipped in the fact that she hoped Mrs. Coughlan would feel free to call on us, whenever she wished, and this was met with tepid, absent-minded gratitude. Things were not going brilliantly. There was no ripple to it and there was no excitement. There were times when it seemed as if Mrs. Coughlan had literally floated away from us, not listening, not seeing, lost in her own world-weary reverie.
A trolley was wheeled in. The china tea set was exquisite, with matching slop bowl, sugar bowl, and jug. The teapot was like a little kettle and had a cane handle. But the eats were not that thrilling. The sandwiches looked rough, obviously made by Rita, and I could swear that it was a shop cake. It had pink icing with a glacé cherry on top, not like Mama’s cakes, which were dusted with caster sugar or a soft-boiled icing that literally melted on the tongue. There were also shop biscuits. Drew urged us to tuck in, as she refrained from food and kept feeling her throat through the layers of green folded georgette. Effie’s hand trembled terribly as she passed us the cup and saucer, and Drew told her for goodness’ sake to get the nesting tables open so that we could at least have something to balance on.
Wanting desperately to show gratitude, Mama said that if ever they needed cream, fresh eggs, cabbage, or cooking apples they had only to ask. Normally she was reserved but her yearning to form a friendship had made her overaccommodating.
All of a sudden Drew got up and rushed to look in the oval mirror that had two candlesticks affixed to it, the white candles unlit, and unwinding the georgette scarf she sighed, saying to Effie to come and look, that the rash was much worse. Effie rushed to her, felt her glands, and said yes, that her lip had also swollen up. To our eyes there was no swelling at all, just a slightly chapped lip and a cold sore. Effie said they would ring the doctor at once, but Mrs. Coughlan tut-tutted, said that was too much of an imposition and that they would go there instead. My heart sank. Mama’s must have sunk too. Mama agreed with Effie that they should send for him and that he would come and bring several medicines in his doctor’s bag. Drew was adamant and told Effie to run and get her fur coatee. She kept touching her lip and her glands with her forefinger, and Mama wondered aloud if perhaps it was some allergy, that maybe she had been gardening and touched nettles or some other plant, to which there came the distinct and crisp answer of “Nouh.” Mama could not find the right thing to say.
Effie was back, all solicitude, putting the coatee around her sister’s shoulders as they went out. We stood in the hall door to see them off, and Effie, who had only recently learned to drive, set out at a reckless speed. She could have killed someone. We debated as to what we should do, but the truth was we did not want to go home so early. Mama looked down at the perforated rubber mat that allowed for muck and wet to fall through and vowed that when she had a bit of money she would invest in one, so as not to be down on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor and hall three times a week. It was not yet dark. Men were sitting on a bench across the road, drinking and talking quietly among themselves. They recognized us but did not call across, as by being in the Coughlan house we had somehow placed ourselves above them. Mama said that yes, the sitting room was nice, but it did not have a very salubrious view. It was a hushed night and there was a smell of flowers, especially night-scented stock from Mrs. McBride’s garden next door. Mrs. McBride was a fanatic gardener and was forever wheeling different pots with flowering plants onto her front porch. We had heard that there was a rift between her and the Coughlans, as both had allotments at the back of their houses and there was argument about the boundary fence — so much so that a guard had had to be called to keep the peace.
We went back into the room and surprised Mr. Coughlan, who was wolfing the sandwiches. The moment he saw us he made some apologetic murmur and bolted. Mama whispered to me that there was a strong smell of drink off him and said that no one ever knew the skeletons that lurked in other people’s cupboards. She removed the fire screen and out of habit poked the fire and put a sod on it, and then she vetted the contents of the room more carefully, estimated the cost of all the furnishings, and said if sh one item it would be the tea trolley and perhaps the mirror with the little candelabras on either side, but that she would not give tuppence for the piano. Then, as if I were absent, she said aloud to herself that there was no swelling and no rash, and that for a woman to wish to go to the doctor at that hour of evening was fishy, decidedly fishy.
“I adored her silver shoes,” I said, trying to sound grown up.
“Did you, darling,” she said, but she was too busy cogitating matters such as how much did he drink, did husband and wife get on, and why were very young children in a boarding school, and why did the sister,the ex-nun, live with them.
The doctor was something of a ladies’ man, and though Mama did not refer to it, it was known that he kissed young nurses in the grounds of the hospital and had taken a student nurse once to Limerick to the pictures, where they stayed canoodling for the second showing, much to the annoyance of the usherette. She conceded that though the green georgette dress and the shoes were the height of fashion, it was not the kind of attire to wear when going to a doctor. At that very moment and like a lunatic, I imagined Drew lying on the doctor’s couch, he leaning in over her, patting her lip, perhaps with iodine, she flinching, her complexion so soft, a little flushed, and how both, as in a drama, had a sudden urge to kiss each other, but did not dare to. We sat for a bit and helped ourselves to some biscuits.
When they got back they showed real surprise at our being still there. I even think that Drew was irked.
“Nothing serious I hope,” Mama said, and Effie flinched and said that Drew had been given an ointment and also a tonic, because she was very run-down. He had, it seems, checked her eyelids for anemia. Drew looked different, as if something thrilling had happened to her, and was gloating over the fact that the doctor and his wife were on first names with her, as if they’d all known one another for an age. It seems they had to wait in the hall as the doctor was tending to an epileptic child, and while they were waiting, his wife came through and chatted with them, offered them a sherry, and insisted that they call her Madeleine. Mama’s hopes were thus dashed. The doctor’s wife used to know us, used to visit us, which was such an honor and meant that we were people of note. Mama did things for her, like sew and knit and bake, and always kept a baby gin in a hidden drawer so that she could be given a tipple, unbeknownst to my father, when she came. Then she stopped coming, and much to Mama’s bewilderment – we were never given a reason, and there had been no coolness and no argument. Months later, we heard that she told the draper’s wife that our milk had a terrible smell and that she would not be visiting again. It had so happened that on one occasion when she came, the grass was very rich and hence the milk did smell somewhat strong, but being a town person she would not know the reason.
Effie then said that Drew should go straight to bed, and Mama concurred and asked if we might be excused. She was too conciliatory, even though she was rattled within.
“So glad you could both come,” Mrs. Coughlan said, but it lacked warmth – it was like telling us that we were dull and lusterless and that we were not people of note.
“Well, now I can say I met the grand Mrs. Coughlan,” Mama said tartly as we walked home, and she repeated her old adage about old friends and new friends – when you make new friends, forget not the old, for the new ones are silver, but the old ones are gold.
We were in a gloom. The grass was heavy with dew, cattle lying down, munching and wheezing. She did not warn me to lift my feet in order to preserve my white shoes, as she was much preoccupied. There was no light from the kitchen window, which signified that my father had gone up to bed and that we would have to bring him a cup of tea and humor him, as otherwise he would be testy on the morrow.
I had this insatiable longing for tinned peaches, but Mama said it would be an extravagance to open a tin at that hour, while promising that we would have them some Sunday with an orange Soufflé, which she had just mastered the recipe for. Mixed in with my longing was a mounting rage. Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful. I prayed for drastic things to occure – for bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr. Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself. ♦
This story is from Saints and Sinners, a collection of short stories by Enda O’Brien, published by Little Brown in May, 2011. It is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.