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Lunch with Mr Gentleman (from The Country Girls)

by Edna O'Brien

(Edna O Brien was born in Drewsborough, Tuamgraney in 1932. She studied pharmacy in Dublin and moved to England in 1958. Her first novel "The Country Girls" was published in 1960, and in addition to her novels she is also the author of short stories, plays for television and film scripts. The following extract is chapter seven of "The County Girls.")

    I was standing outside the gate waiting for the bus when Mr. Gentleman's car passed by and went up the street. It stopped outside the garage on the hill for petrol, then he turned round and came back.
    'Are you going somewhere, Caithleen?' he asked, winding down the window.
    I said that I was going to Limerick and he said to sit in. So I sat on the black leather seat beside him and my heart fluttered. The moment I heard him speak and the moment I looked at his eyes my heart always fluttered. His eyes were tired or sad or something. He smoked little cigars and threw the buttes out the window.
    'Are they horrible.' I asked. I had to say something.
    'Here, try one,' he said, and he took the cigar out of his mouth and handed it to me. I was thinking of his mouth, of the shape of it, and the taste of his tongue, while I had one short, self-conscious puff. I began to cough at once. I said it was worse than horrible, and he laughed. He drove very fast.
    We parked the car down a side street and I thanked him and went off. He was locking the door. I hated leaving him. There was something about him that made me want to be with him. He called me back. 'What about lunch, Caithleen.' I intended tea and cream-buns but I didn't tell him that.
    'Would you like to meet me.'
    I said that I would. His eyes were still sad but I was singing as I came away.
    'You won't forget, will you?'
    'No, Mr. Gentleman, I won't forget'. I hurried off to the shops.
    I went into the biggest shop on the main street. Mama always shopped there. I asked a woman who was down on her knees scrubbing the floor where I'd go for a gym frock.
    'Fourth floor, love. Take the lift.' She had no teeth when she smiled. I gave her a shilling. I had saved three shillings on my bus fare. I could afford to be extravagant.
    I got into the lift. A small boy with a buttoned tunic operated it.
    'I want a gym frock,' I said. He ignored me.
    I sat on a stool in the corner, because it was my first time in a lift and I felt dizzy. We passed three floors with a click at each floor; then it clicked, stopped, and he let me out. The gym-frock counter was directly opposite and I went across.
    Afterwards I weighed myself in the cloakroom and learnt that I was seven pounds too light. There was a chart printed on the side of the scales that gave the correct weight for each person's height.
    I went down the stairs. The carpet was worn but it was soft under the feet. In the basement I bought presents for everybody. A scarf for Dada, a penknife for Hickey, a boat-shaped bottle of perfume for Baba, and pink hand-jelly for Martha. Then I came out on to the street and looked in a jewellery window. I saw a lot of watches that I liked. I went into a big church at the corner, to have three wishes. We were told that we had three wishes whenever we went into a new church. The Holy Water wasn't in a font like at home, but there was a drop at the end of a narrow tap, and I put my finger under it and blessed myself. I wished that Mama was in Heaven, that my father would never drink again, and that Mr. Gentleman would not forget to come at one o'clock.
    I came to the hotel a half hour before the time so that I wouldn't miss him, and I was afraid to go inside to the hall in case a porter should tell me that I had no right to be there.
    He had had a hair-cut, and as he came up the steps his face looked sharp and I could see the top of the ears. Before that they were hidden under a soft fall of fine grey hair. He smiled at me. My heart fluttered once again and I found it hard to speak.
    'Men prefer to kiss young girls without lipstick, you know,' he said. He was referring to the two thin lines of pink lipstick that I had put on. I bought a tube in Woolworth's and went round to the mirror counter and applied it in front of a mirror that showed up all the pores on my face.
    'I wasn't thinking of kissing. I never kiss anyone,' I said.   
    'Never? He was teasing me. I knew by the way he smiled.
    'No. Nobody. Only Hickey.'
    'Nobody else?'
    I shook my head and he caught my elbow as we went into the dining-room. My arms were thin and white and I was ashamed of them.
    It was my first time in a city hotel. I decided to have the cheapest thing on the menu.
    ‘I'll have Irish stew,' I said.   
    'No, you will not,' he replied. He was cross but it wasn't real crossness, only pretending. He ordered little chickens for both of us. Another waiter brought a tall, slender dark-green bottle of wine. There was a bowl of mixed flowers on the table between us, but they had no smell.
    He poured some wine into his own glass, sipped it, and smiled. Then he poured some into mine. I had my Confirmation pledge, but I was ashamed to tell him. He was smiling at me all the time. It was a sad smile and I liked it.
    'Tell me about your day.'
    'I bought my school uniform and I walked around. That's all.'   
    The wine was bitter. I would have rather'd lemonade. I had ice-cream afterwards, and Mr. Gentleman had a white cheese with green threads of mould in it. It smelt like Hickey's socks, not the new socks I bought him but the old ones under his mattress.
    'That was lovely,' I said, pushing my plate over to the edge of the table where it would be handy for the waiter to get it.
    'It was,' he agreed. I didn't know whether Mr. Gentleman was shy, or whether it was that he was just too lazy to talk. Or bored. He was no good for small talk.
    'We must have another lunch some day,' he said.
    I'm going away next week,' I replied.
    'Going away to America? Too bad we'll never meet one another again.' I think he thought he was being very funny. He drank some more wine and his eyes got very large and very, very wistful. They met mine for as long as I Wanted.
    'So you tell me that you have never kissed anyone?' He said.
    He had a way of looking at me that made me feel innocent. He was staring now. Sometimes directly into my pupils, other times his eyes would roam all over my face and settle for a minute on my neck. My neck was snow-white and I was wearing a silk dress with a curved neckline. It was an ice-blue dress with blossoms on it. Sometimes I thought they were tiny apple blossoms and then again I thought the pattern was one of snow falling; but either way it was a nice dress and the skirt was composed of millions of little pieces that flowed when I walked.
    'The next time we have lunch, don’t wear lipstick,' he said. 'I prefer you without it.'
    The coffee was bitter, I used four lumps of sugar. We came out and went to the pictures. He bought me a box of chocolates with a ribbon on it.
    I cried halfway through the picture because there was a sad bit about a boy having to leave a girl in order to go off to war. He laughed when he saw me crying and whispered that we should go out. He took my hand as we went up the dark passage, and out in the vestibule he wiped my eyes and told me to smile.
    We drove home while it was still bright. The hills in the distance were blue and the trees in the folds of the hills were a dusty lilac. Farmers were saving hay in fields along the roadside and children were sitting on haycocks eating apples and throwing butts over the ditch. The smell of hay came through the window, half spice, half perfume.
    A woman wearing wellingtons was driving cows home to be milked. We had to slow down to let them in a side gate and I caught him looking at me. We smiled at each other and his hand came off the steering-wheel and rested on the lap of my ice-blue dress. My hand was waiting for it. We locked our fingers and for the rest of the journey we drove like that, except going round sharp bends. His hand was small and white and very smooth. There were no hairs on it.
    'You're the sweetest thing that ever happened to me,' he said. It was all he said and it was only a whisper. Afterwards, lying in bed in the convent, I used to wonder whether he said it or whether I had imagined it.
    He squeezed my hand before I got out of the car. I thanked him and reached into the back seat for my packages. He sighed, as if he were going to say something; but Baba ran out to the car and he slipped away from me.
    My soul was alive; enchantment; something I had never known before. It was the happiest day of my whole life.
    'Goodbye, Mr. Gentleman,' I said through the window.
    There was an odd expression in his smile which seemed to be saying, 'Don't go.' But he did go, my new god, with a face carved out of pale marble and eyes that made me sad for every woman who hadn't known him. 'What'n the hell are you mooing about?' Baba asked, and I went into the house laughing.
    'I bought you a present,' I said, and in my mind I kept singing it, 'You're the sweetest thing that ever happened to me.' It was like having a precious stone in my pocket and I had only to say the words in order to feel it, blue, precious, enchanting. . ... my deathless, deathless song.

(The Country Girls was published by Hutchinson, London, 1960.)


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