Father was in the army all through the war – the first war, I mean – so, up to the age of five, I never saw much of him, and what I saw did not worry me. Sometimes I woke and there was a big figure in khaki peering down at me in the candlelight. Sometimes in the early morning I heard the slamming of the front door and the clatter of nailed boots down the cobbles of the lane. These were Father’s entrances and exits. Like Santa Claus he came and went mysteriously.
In fact, I rather liked his visits, though it was an uncomfortable squeeze between Mother and him when I got into the big bed in the early morning. He smoked, which gave him a pleasant musty smell, and shaved, an operation of astounding interest. Each time he left a trail of souvenirs – model tanks and Gurkha knives with handles made of bullet cases, and German helmets and cap badges and button sticks, and all sorts of military equipment – carefully stowed away in a long box on top of the wardrobe, in case they ever came in handy. There was a bit of the magpie about Father; he expected everything to come in handy. When his back was turned, Mother let me get a chair and rummage through his treasures. She didn’t seem to think so highly of them as he did.
The war was the most peaceful period of my life. The window of my attic faced southeast. My mother had curtained it, but that had small effect. I always woke with the first light and, with all the responsibilities of the previous day melted, feeling myself rather like the sun, ready to illumine and rejoice. Life never seemed so simple and clear and full of possibilities as then. I put my feet out from under the clothes – I called them Mrs. Left and Mrs. Right “and invented dramatic situations for them in which they discussed the problems of the day. At least Mrs. Right did; she was very demonstrative, but I hadn’t the same control of Mrs. Left, so she mostly contented herself with nodding agreement.
They discussed what Mother and I should do during the day, what Santa Claus should give a fellow for Christmas, and what steps should be taken to brighten the home. There was that little matter of the baby, for instance. Mother and I could never agree about that. Ours was the only house in the terrace without a new baby, and Mother said we couldn’t afford one till Father came back from the war because they cost seventeen and six.
That showed how simple she was. The Geneys up the road had a baby, and everyone knew they couldn’t afford seventeen and six. It was probably a cheap baby, and Mother wanted something really good, but I felt she was too exclusive. The Geneys' baby would have done us fine.
Having settled my plans for the day, I got up, put a chair under the attic window, and lifted the frame high enough to stick out my head. The window overlooked the front gardens of the terrace behind ours, and beyond these it looked over a deep valley to the tall, red brick houses terraced up the opposite hillside, which were all still in shadow, while those at our side of the valley were all lit up, though with long strange shadows that made them seem unfamiliar; rigid and painted.
After that I went into Mother’s room and climbed into the big bed. She woke and I began to tell her of my schemes. By this time, though I never seemed to have noticed it, I was petrified in my nightshirt, and I thawed as I talked until, the last frost melted, I fell asleep beside her and woke again only when I heard her below in the kitchen, making the breakfast.
After breakfast we went into town; heard Mass at St. Augustine’s and said a prayer for Father, and did the shopping. If the afternoon was fine we either went for a walk in the country or a visit to Mother’s great friend in the convent, Mother Saint Dominic. Mother had them all praying for Father, and every night, going to bed, I asked God to send him back safe from the war to us. Little, indeed, did I know what I was praying for!
One morning, I got into the big bed, and there, sure enough, was Father in his usual Santa Claus manner, but later, instead of uniform, he put on his best blue suit, and Mother was as pleased as anything. I saw nothing to be pleased about, because, out of uniform, Father was altogether less interesting, but she only beamed, and explained that our prayers had been answered, and off we went to Mass to thank God for having brought Father safely home.
The irony of it! That very day when he came in to dinner he took off his boots and put on his slippers, donned the dirty old cap he wore about the house to save him from colds, crossed his legs, and began to talk gravely to Mother, who looked anxious. Naturally, I disliked her looking anxious, because it destroyed her good looks, so I interrupted him.
"Just a moment, Larry!" she said gently. This was only what she said when we had boring visitors, so I attached no importance to it and went on talking.
"Do be quiet, Larry!" she said impatiently. “Don’t you hear me talking to Daddy?"
This was the first time I had heard those ominous words, “talking to Daddy," and I couldn’t help feeling that if this was how God answered prayers, he couldn’t listen to them very attentively.
"Why are you talking to Daddy?" I asked with as great a show of indifference as I could muster.
"Because Daddy and I have business to discuss. Now, don’t interrupt again!"
In the afternoon, at Mother’s request, Father took me for a walk. This time we went into town instead of out in the country, and I thought at first, in my usual optimistic way, that it might be an improvement. It was nothing of the sort. Father and I had quite different notions of a walk in town. He had no proper interest in trams, ships, and horses, and the only thing that seemed to divert him was talking to fellows as old as himself. When I wanted to stop he simply went on, dragging me behind him by the hand; when he wanted to stop I had no alternative but to do the same. I noticed that it seemed to be a sign that he wanted to stop for a long time whenever he leaned against a wall. The second time I saw him do it I got wild. He seemed to be settling himself forever. I pulled him by the coat and trousers, but, unlike Mother who, if you were too persistent, got into a wax and said: “Larry, if you don’t behave yourself, I'll give you a good slap," Father had an extraordinary capacity for amiable inattention. I sized him up and wondered would I cry, but he seemed to be too remote to be annoyed even by that. Really, it was like going for a walk with a mountain! He either ignored the wrenching and pummeling entirely, or else glanced down with a grin of amusement from his peak. I had never met anyone so absorbed in himself as he seemed.
At teatime, “talking to Daddy" began again, complicated this time by the fact that he had an evening paper, and every few minutes he put it down and told Mother something new out of it. I felt this was foul play. Man for man, I was prepared to compete with him any time for Mother’s attention, but when he had it all made up for him by other people it left me no chance. Several times I tried to change the subject without success.
"You must be quiet while Daddy is reading, Larry," Mother said impatiently.
It was clear that she either genuinely liked talking to Father better than talking to me, or else that he had some terrible hold on her which made her afraid to admit the truth.
"Mummy," I said that night when she was tucking me up, “do you think if I prayed hard God would send Daddy back to the war?"
She seemed to think about that for a moment.
"No, dear," she said with a smile. “I don’t think He would."
"Why wouldn’t He, Mummy?"
"Because there isn’t a war any longer, dear."
"But, Mummy, couldn’t God make another war, if He liked?"
"He wouldn’t like to, dear. It’s not God who makes wars, but bad people.
"Oh!" I said. I was disappointed about that. I began to think that God wasn’t quite what He was cracked up to be.
Next morning I woke at my usual hour, feeling like a
bottle of champagne. I put out my feet and invented a long conversation
in which Mrs. Right talked of the trouble she had with her own father
till she put him in the Home. I didn’t quite know what the Home was but
it sounded the right place for Father. Then I got my chair and stuck my
head out of the attic window. Dawn was just breaking, with a guilty air
that made me feel I had caught it in the act. My head bursting with
stories and schemes, I stumbled in next door, and in the half-darkness
scrambled into the big bed. There was no room at Mother’s side so I had
to get between her and Father. For the time being I had forgotten about
him, and for several minutes I sat bolt upright, racking my brains to
know what I could do with him. He was taking up more than his fair share
of the bed, and I couldn’t get comfortable, so I gave him several kicks
that made him grunt and stretch. He made room all right, though. Mother
waked and felt for me. I settled back comfortably in the warmth of the
bed with my thumb in my mouth.
"Mummy!" I hummed, loudly and contentedly.
"Sssh! dear," she whispered. “Don’t wake Daddy!"
This was a new development, which threatened to be even more serious than “talking to Daddy." Life without my early-morning conferences was unthinkable.
"Why?" I asked severely.
"Because poor Daddy is tired." This seemed to me a quite inadequate reason, and I was sickened by the sentimentality of her “poor Daddy." I never liked that sort of gush; it always struck me as insincere.
"Oh!" I said lightly. Then in my most winning tone: “Do you know where I want to go with you today, Mummy?"
"No, dear," she sighed.
"I want to go down the Glen and fish for thornybacks with my new net, and then I want to go out to the Fox and Hounds, and “"
"Don't-wake-Daddy!" she hissed angrily, clapping her hand across my mouth.
But it was too late. He was awake, or nearly so. He grunted and reached for the matches. Then he stared incredulously at his watch.
"Like a cup of tea, dear?" asked Mother in a meek, hushed voice I had never heard her use before. It sounded almost as though she were afraid.
"Tea?" he exclaimed indignantly. “Do you know what the time is?"
"And after that I want to go up the Rathcooney Road," I said loudly, afraid I’d forget something in all those interruptions.
"Go to sleep at once, Larry!" she said sharply.
I began to snivel. I couldn’t concentrate, the way that pair went on, and smothering my early-morning schemes was like burying a family from the cradle. Father said nothing, but lit his pipe and sucked it, looking out into the shadows without minding Mother or me. I knew he was mad. Every time I made a remark Mother hushed me irritably. I was mortified. I felt it wasn’t fair; there was even something sinister in it. Every time I had pointed out to her the waste of making two beds when we could both sleep in one, she had told me it was healthier like that, and now here was this man, this stranger, sleeping with her without the least regard for her health! He got up early and made tea, but though he brought Mother a cup he brought none for me.
"Mummy," I shouted, “I want a cup of tea, too."
"Yes, dear," she said patiently. “You can drink from Mummy’s saucer."
That settled it. Either Father or I would have to leave the house. I didn’t want to drink from Mother’s saucer; I wanted to be treated as an equal in my own home, so, just to spite her, I drank it all and left none for her. She took that quietly, too. But that night when she was putting me to bed she said gently:
"Larry, I want you to promise me something."
"What is it?" I asked.
"Not to come in and disturb poor Daddy in the morning. Promise?"
"Poor Daddy" again! I was becoming suspicious of everything involving that quite impossible man.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because poor Daddy is worried and tired and he doesn’t sleep well."
"Why doesn’t he, Mummy?"
"Well, you know, don’t you, that while he was at the war Mummy got the pennies from the post office?"
"From Miss MacCarthy?"
"That’s right. But now, you see, Miss MacCarthy hasn’t any more pennies, so Daddy must go out and find us some. You know what would happen if he couldn't?"
"No," I said, “tell us."
"Well, I think we might have to go out and beg for them like the poor old woman on Fridays. We wouldn’t like that, would we?"
"No," I agreed. “We wouldn't."
"So you'll promise not to come in and wake him?"
Mind you, I meant that. I knew pennies were a serious matter, and I was all against having to go out and beg like the old woman on Fridays. Mother laid out all my toys in a complete ring round the bed so that, whatever way I got out, I was bound to fall over one of them. When I woke I remembered my promise all right. I got up and sat on the floor and played – for hours, it seemed to me. Then I got my chair and looked out the attic window for more hours. I wished it was time for Father to wake; I wished someone would make me a cup of tea. I didn’t feel in the least like the sun; instead, I was bored and so very, very cold! I simply longed for the warmth and depth of the big feather bed. At last I could stand it no longer. I went into the next room. As there was still no room at Mother’s side I climbed over her and she woke with a start. “Larry," she whispered, gripping my arm very tightly, “what did you promise?"
"But I did, Mummy," I wailed, caught in the very act. “I was quiet for ever so long."
"Oh, dear, and you’re perished!" she said sadly, feeling me all over. “Now, if I let you stay will you promise not to talk?"
"But I want to talk, Mummy," I wailed.
"That has nothing to do with it," she said with a firmness that was new to me. “Daddy wants to sleep. Now, do you understand that?"
I understood it only too well. I wanted to talk, he wanted to sleep – whose house was it, anyway?
"Mummy," I said with equal firmness, “I think it would be healthier for Daddy to sleep in his own bed."
That seemed to stagger her, because she said nothing for a while.
"Now, once for all," she went on, “you’re to be perfectly quiet or go back to your own bed. Which is it to be?"
The injustice of it got me down. I had convicted her out of her own mouth of inconsistency and unreasonableness, and she hadn’t even attempted to reply. Full of spite, I gave Father a kick, which she didn’t notice but which made him grunt and open his eyes in alarm.
"What time is it?" he asked in a panic-stricken voice, not looking at Mother but at the door, as if he saw someone there.
"It’s early yet," she replied soothingly. “It’s only the child. Go to sleep again.... Now, Larry," she added, getting out of bed, “you've wakened Daddy and you must go back."
This time, for all her quiet air, I knew she meant it, and knew that my principal rights and privileges were as good as lost unless I asserted them at once. As she lifted me, I gave a screech, enough to wake the dead, not to mind Father.
He groaned. “That damn child! Doesn’t he ever sleep?"
"It’s only a habit, dear," she said quietly, though I could see she was vexed.
"Well, it’s time he got out of it," shouted Father, beginning to heave in the bed. He suddenly gathered all the bedclothes about him, turned to the wall, and then looked back over his shoulder with nothing showing only two small, spiteful, dark eyes. The man looked very wicked. To open the bedroom door, Mother had to let me down, and I broke free and dashed for the farthest corner, screeching.
Father sat bolt upright in bed. “Shut up, you little puppy," he said in a choking voice.
I was so astonished that I stopped screeching. Never, never had anyone spoken to me in that tone before. I looked at him incredulously and saw his face convulsed with rage. It was only then that I fully realized how God had codded me, listening to my prayers for the safe return of this monster.
"Shut up, you!" I bawled, beside myself.
"What’s that you said?" shouted Father, making a wild leap out of the bed.
"Mick, Mick!" cried Mother. “Don’t you see the child isn’t used to you?"
"I see he’s better fed than taught," snarled Father, waving his arms wildly. “He wants his bottom smacked."
All his previous shouting was as nothing to these obscene words referring to my person. They really made my blood boil.
"Smack your own!" I screamed hysterically. “Smack your own! Shut up! Shut up!"
At this he lost his patience and let fly at me. He did it with the lack of conviction you’d expect of a man under Mother’s horrified eyes, and it ended up as a mere tap, but the sheer indignity of being struck at all by a stranger, a total stranger who had cajoled his way back from the war into our big bed as a result of my innocent intercession, made me completely dotty. I shrieked and shrieked, and danced in my bare feet, and Father, looking awkward and hairy in nothing but a short gray army shirt, glared down at me like a mountain out for murder. I think it must have been then that I realized he was jealous too. And there stood Mother in her nightdress, looking as if her heart was broken between us. I hoped she felt as she looked. It seemed to me that she deserved it all.
From that morning out my life was a hell. Father and I were enemies, open and avowed. We conducted a series of skirmishes against one another, he trying to steal my time with Mother and I his. When she was sitting on my bed, telling me a story, he took to looking for some pair of old boots which he alleged he had left behind him at the beginning of the war. While he talked to Mother I played loudly with my toys to show my total lack of concern.
He created a terrible scene one evening when he came in from work and found me at his box, playing with his regimental badges, Gurkha knives and button sticks. Mother got up and took the box from me.
"You mustn’t play with Daddy’s toys unless he lets you, Larry," she said severely. “Daddy doesn’t play with yours."
For some reason Father looked at her as if she had struck him and then turned away with a scowl. “Those are not toys," he growled, taking down the box again to see had I lifted anything. “Some of those curios are very rare and valuable."
But as time went on I saw more and more how he managed to alienate Mother and me. What made it worse was that I couldn’t grasp his method or see what attraction he had for Mother. In every possible way he was less winning than I. He had a common accent and made noises at his tea. I thought for a while that it might be the newspapers she was interested in, so I made up bits of news of my own to read to her. Then I thought it might be the smoking, which I personally thought attractive, and took his pipes and went round the house dribbling into them till he caught me. I even made noises at my tea, but Mother only told me I was disgusting. It all seemed to hinge round that unhealthy habit of sleeping together, so I made a point of dropping into their bedroom and nosing round, talking to myself, so that they wouldn’t know I was watching them, but they were never up to anything that I could see. In the end it beat me. It seemed to depend on being grown-up and giving people rings, and I realized I’d have to wait. But at the same time I wanted him to see that I was only waiting, not giving up the fight.
One evening when he was being particularly obnoxious, chattering away well above my head, I let him have it.
"Mummy," I said, “do you know what I’m going to do when I grow up?"
"No, dear," she replied. “What?"
"I’m going to marry you," I said quietly.
Father gave a great guffaw out of him, but he didn’t take me in. I knew it must only be pretence.
And Mother, in spite of everything, was pleased. I felt she was probably relieved to know that one day Father’s hold on her would be broken.
"Won’t that be nice?" she said with a smile.
"It'll be very nice," I said confidently. “Because we’re going to have lots and lots of babies."
"That’s right, dear," she said placidly. “I think we’ll have one soon, and then you'll have plenty of company."
I was no end pleased about that because it showed that in spite of the way she gave in to Father she still considered my wishes. Besides, it would put the Geneys in their place. It didn’t turn out like that, though. To begin with, she was very preoccupied – I supposed about where she would get the seventeen and six – and though Father took to staying out late in the evenings it did me no particular good. She stopped taking me for walks, became as touchy as blazes, and smacked me for nothing at all. Sometimes I wished I’d never mentioned the confounded baby – I seemed to have a genius for bringing calamity on myself.
And calamity it was! Sonny arrived in the most appalling hullabaloo – even that much he couldn’t do without a fuss – and from the first moment I disliked him. He was a difficult child – so far as I was concerned he was always difficult – and demanded far too much attention. Mother was simply silly about him, and couldn’t see when he was only showing off. As company he was worse than useless. He slept all day, and I had to go round the house on tiptoe to avoid waking him. It wasn’t any longer a question of not waking Father. The slogan now was “Don't-wake-Sonny!" I couldn’t understand why the child wouldn’t sleep at the proper time, so whenever Mother’s back was turned I woke him. Sometimes to keep him awake I pinched him as well. Mother caught me at it one day and gave me a most unmerciful flaking.
One evening, when Father was coming in from work, I was playing trains in the front garden. I let on not to notice him; instead, I pretended to be talking to myself, and said in a loud voice: “If another bloody baby comes into this house, I’m going out."
Father stopped dead and looked at me over his shoulder. “What’s that you said?" he asked sternly.
"I was only talking to myself," I replied, trying to conceal my panic. “It’s private."
He turned and went in without a word.
Mind you, I intended it as a solemn warning, but its effect was quite different. Father started being quite nice to me. I could understand that, of course. Mother was quite sickening about Sonny. Even at mealtimes she’d get up and gawk at him in the cradle with an idiotic smile, and tell Father to do the same. He was always polite about it, but he looked so puzzled you could see he didn’t know what she was talking about. He complained of the way Sonny cried at night, but she only got cross and said that Sonny never cried except when there was something up with him – which was a flaming lie, because Sonny never had anything up with him, and only cried for attention. It was really painful to see how simpleminded she was.
Father wasn’t attractive, but he had a fine intelligence. He saw through Sonny, and now he knew that I saw through him as well. One night I woke with a start. There was someone beside me in the bed. For one wild moment I felt sure it must be Mother, having come to her senses and left Father for good, but then I heard Sonny in convulsions in the next room, and Mother saying: “There! There! There!" and I knew it wasn’t she. It was Father. He was lying beside me, wide-awake, breathing hard and apparently as mad as hell. After a while it came to me what he was mad about. It was his turn now. After turning me out of the big bed, he had been turned out himself. Mother had no consideration now for anyone but that poisonous pup, Sonny.
I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Father. I had been through it all myself, and even at that age I was magnanimous. I began to stroke him down and say: “There! There!"
He wasn’t exactly responsive. “Aren’t you asleep either?" he snarled.
"Ah, come on and put your arm around us, can’t you?" I said, and he did, in a sort of way. Gingerly, I suppose, is how you’d describe it. He was very bony but better than nothing.
At Christmas he went out of his way to buy me a really nice model railway.