(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
'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
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
'No. Nobody. Only Hickey.'
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.
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
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
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.)