was nice by the sea. Pops used to bring us there a lot in summer-time.
All afternoon, we would sit, swim, build sandcastles, and sometimes
buy cones and perri-winkles. The four of us would go: Minnie,
Pops, Johnny and I. Minnie was our nanny and housekeeper. We needed
her because, two years before, our Mammy had gone to heaven. Johnny
and I didn’t like Minnie one bit, nor she us.
One Sunday afternoon we spent on the beach
is engraved on my memory. I was seven and Johnny four. The beach
was chockfull that day, and the air was full of the smell of sun-tan
lotion, and the sounds of crying babies, waves and radios tuned
to the football commentary. Johnny and I wanted to go swimming,
and Minnie said we could, provided we didn’t go in past
our waists and were careful. I was to look after Johnny. So we
ran down the beach together - the tide was well out - and splashed
into the shallow water.
Well, there was no persuading Johnny to
come into deeper water, and I eventually left him in the shallows
while I went swimming. I liked swimming and was good at it for
a seven-year-old. I especially liked ducking underwater and exploring
the dark, sandy bed for a few seconds, before shooting up into
the light for air. Another thing I liked doing was lying back
and kicking my long legs as hard as I could, splashing foam all
over the place. I also practised my breaststroke, but only because
I thought of my swimming-teacher, a strict woman who would surely
disapprove if I did not take advantage of my visit to the sea
to practise my swimming.
When I came back to the shore, Johnny had
moved from where I had left him. I stood and roared out his name
as loud as I could, but there was no sign of him.
When I ran back to Minnie and Pops, there
he was, calmly digging a hole in the sand beside them.
“Well, miss,” said Minnie,
“I thought I told you to take care of your brother.”
“But he wouldn’t come into
the water!” I whinged automatically.
“I left him
sitting in the shallow water and told him not to move.”
This was a lie.
“It’s his fault.”
“Well, you should have been keeping an
eye on him and not let him go wandering off. Imagine if he didn’t
come back to us? You’d be held responsible. In future now,
do as you’re told.”
I was red in the face, but stayed silent. Minnie
wouldn’t brook any more backchat out of me, I knew. I soon
grew tired of sulking and began to build sandcastles near Johnny.
I made a point of ignoring him, however, and whenever he encroached
on my territory by accidently flinging sand near me or by moving
his leg into my area, I gave him a vicious pinch. Strangely, he
didn’t complain about me to Minnie or Pops. He was too absorbed
in digging his holes.
After a while, Minnie said something to Pops
and he stopped reading his paper long enough to give her a pound
note out of his pocket.
“Now, Eileen,” she said in the
peremptory tone I resented.
is going to buy us cones. I want you to go and get them at the
shop. Ask for four small white ones – not pink, now. Pink
are bad for you. And make sure you bring back the change.”
“Johnny piped up: “I want to go
“No,” I told him. “You’re
He was about to start crying when Minnie said:
“Don’t be such a mean thing, Eileen.
Wouldn’t you show some kindness to your brother. Of course,
he can go. He can help you carry back the cones. Otherwise you’ll
drop them or have them dripping all over the place.”
Holding Johnny’s hand in a tight squeeze
designed to hurt him, I began to walk to the shop. I walked deliberately
quickly to make it hard for him to keep up, and at one point walked
him straight into a man and then told him off for being an awkward
little fool. But once I had exacted my revenge, my grip relaxed,
and I began to hum my favourite tune, ‘All kinds of Everything.’
For we were going to the shop to buy cones. Johnny caught my mood,
and soon we were singing our own song together – ‘Boo-pa
doo-pa ooglie-bogglie la-la-la’ - and giggling. It seemed
funny to be singing it in front of all these strangers. It had
never seemed this funny in the privacy of our home.
To get to the shop, we had to cross the pedestrian
crossing. We had to wait a while for a car to come. Then, we marched
across the black-and-white lines at a snail’s pace, and
thrilled to the power of making it stop. Someday, I wanted to
stand still in the middle of those lines and stop all the cars
for hours. Or walk back and forth, back and forth, all day, not
giving them a chance to cross. For today, I was content to walk
There was a big queue at the ice-cream machine.
The man serving at it looked hot. I thought of asking him could
I have his job for a half-an-hour. I would have loved to pull
the handle down and let the delicious long sausage of ice-cream
flow. And if I did it, the ice-cream would go right down to the
bottom of the cone. That way, you could bite off the bottom of
it and suck the ice-cream into your mouth. That was how ice-cream
should be eaten.
Eventually, the man noticed me and asked: “How
“Four,” I said.
“Large or small?”
“Pink or white?”
I paused and thought for a moment. “Two
pink and two white.”
Johnny tugged my sleeve urgently.
Louder, he said: “Minnie said to get
white ones, Eileen.”
His voice was scared, and this made me nervous.
“Just shut up, you. You want pink, don’t
The man was watching us impatiently.
up your mind. Do you want pink or white?”
“Two pink and two white,” I said
Triumphantly, I marched out of the shop. Johnny
and I each held a pink in one fist and a white in the other.
“The pink is much nicer than the white,”
I told him.
His agreed with
me, but his mouth was buried too deeply in his ice-cream to reply.
When we came back to the wall, at the other
side of which Minnie and Pops were sitting, half our ice-cream
was still left. All my good humour deserted me at the prospect
of facing Minnie with clear evidence of having disobeyed her orders.
“Quick, finish your cone,” I told
Johnny, licking mine furiously.
“But look at Pops’ one,”
he wailed, and I noticed for the first time that both of the white
ice-creams were melting fast and dripping down our hands.
I had to work quickly. I repaired the damage
by licking away the white ice-cream that had dripped onto the
cone, told Johnny to do the same, and threw my own into a bin.
Johnny refused to give up his, however, (‘You shouldn’t
have bought pink ones in the first place!’) but I snatched
it from his grasp, slapped him and told him not to cry or I would
murder him. Then we went around the wall to face Pops and Minnie.
As I approached them, sitting some hundred
yards away, I was faced with an extraordinary sight. Their deck-chairs
which had been apart, were pushed together, and they were doing
something very peculiar with their arms and with their heads.
I couldn’t quite figure it out. I decided something was
wrong with Minnie, and Pops, who was a doctor, was trying to cure
her. I rushed forward and, as I did so, they broke up, Pops picked
up his newspaper and Minnie was suddenly absorbed by the “Reader’s
Digest” on her lap.
I ran to them. “What’s wrong, Minnie?”
“Nothing, nothing. Thank you for the
Johnny, who had been walking behind me, gave
Pops his cone and he, too, thanked him. It was strange for them
to be so polite.
Even more strangely, Minnie said nothing about
the condition of her ice-cream which, despite my best efforts,
looked pretty miserable. But the crowning event in a series of
extraordinary ones was when Minnie called Johnny to her and wiped
the ice-cream off his face, hands and tee-shirt, without saying
a word about it’s being pink.
Actually, she was returning to normal, because
she said to him:
“How many times have I told you to keep
yourself clean? At your age, slobbering ice-cream all over yourself.”
But I just couldn’t understand why she
didn’t notice the colour. Minnie always noticed things like
that. She looked funny, too: kind of red in the face. The whole
thing gave me a very peculiar feeling.
They sent us away, then, to play, even though
we didn’t want to. When we came back, Pops said it was time
to go home, although it was only four o’clock.
“But why do we have to go?” I whinged.
“Because I said so,” said Pops.
“And not another word out of you,”
added Minnie, grimfaced.
Late that night, as we lay in bed feeling tired
and comfortable after our day at the beach, she came into our
room to tuck us in.
“I have something to tell you,”
I noticed she was wearing lipstick, something
I had never seen her do. And her hair was all funny.
and I have become engaged.”
When we said nothing, she looked disappointed,
and was about to leave the room when she turned back and asked:
“Do you know what that means?”
We shook our heads.
we’re going to get married.”
“But you can’t do that,”
I protested after thinking about this for a moment.
“He’s married already!”
“I know he is,” she said with false
kindness, for I could see she was struggling to control herself.
“But he can
marry a second time if he wants to. Your Mammy wouldn’t
“But I don’t want you to marry
Pops,” I said, and tried to keep the tears back.
But my words were as nothing compared with
what was to come, for Johnny burst into the most heart-wrenching
bawl of anguish that I have ever heard. He continued to bawl until
my father came thumping up the stairs.
“What’s going on here?” he
demanded of no one in particular. I noticed that Minnie had shrunk
back against the wall.
“Johnny, what’s wrong?”
“I .. you .. Minnie told us ..”
was all he could manage before he started bawling again.
“Shh, shh. Minnie told you we’re
getting married, is that it? Now what’s wrong with that?
Wouldn’t you like to have Minnie for a Mammy?”
His bawling changed
gear and became even louder. Pops turned to me in bewilderment.
“Eileen, what’s wrong? Do you not
like us getting married?”
In reply, I pouted my lips and turned to kneel
with my back to him, putting a protective arm around Johnny. He
was wailing still, although a little more quietly.
My father gave up and he and Minnie left the
room. I don’t know what happened after that except that
soon afterwards, to our great delight, Minnie left us and was
replaced by big red-cheeked Mary from Cork. My father never remarried.
Nor, incidentally, did he ever again take us to the beach for
Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’
(1991), pages 55-58.