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.
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