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.
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