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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.
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