“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.