A treasure of world literature back in print, featuring a new introduction by Eimear McBride
The country girls are Caithleen “Kate” Brady and Bridget “Baba” Brennan, and their story begins in the repressive atmosphere of a small village in the west of Ireland in the years following World War II. Kate is a romantic, looking for love; Baba is a survivor. Setting out to conquer the bright lights of Dublin, they are rewarded with comical miscommunications, furtive liaisons, bad faith, bad luck, bad sex, and compromise; marrying for the wrong reasons, betraying for the wrong reasons, fighting in their separate ways against the overwhelming wave of expectations forced upon "girls" of every era.
The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue charts unflinchingly the pattern of women’s lives, from the high spirits of youth to the chill of middle age, from hope to despair, in remarkable prose swinging from blunt and brutal to whimsical and lyrical. It is a saga both painful and hilarious, and remains one of the major accomplishments of Edna O’Brien’s extraordinary career.
This omnibus edition includes the novels The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, and Girls in Their Married Bliss.
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I wakened quickly and sat up in bed abruptly. It is only when I am anxious that I waken easily and for a minute I did not know why my heart was beating faster than usual. Then I remembered. The old reason. He had not come home.
Getting out, I rested for a moment on the edge of the bed, smoothing the green satin bedspread with my hand. We had forgotten to fold it the previous night, Mama and me. Slowly I slid onto the floor and the linoleum was cold on the soles of my feet. My toes curled up instinctively. I owned slippers but Mama made me save them for when I was visiting my aunts and cousins; and we had rugs, but they were rolled up and kept in drawers until visitors came in the summertime from Dublin.
I put on my ankle socks.
There was a smell of frying bacon from the kitchen, but it didn't cheer me.
Then I went over to let up the blind. It shot up suddenly and the cord got twisted around it. It was lucky that Mama had gone downstairs, as she was always lecturing me on how to let up blinds properly, gently.
The sun was not yet up, and the lawn was speckled with daisies that were fast asleep. There was dew everywhere. The grass below my window, the hedge around it, the rusty paling wire beyond that, and the big outer field were each touched with a delicate, wandering mist. The leaves and the trees were bathed in the mist, and the trees looked unreal, like trees in a dream. Around the forget-me-nots that sprouted out of the side of the hedge were haloes of water. Water that glistened like silver. It was quiet, it was perfectly still. There was smoke rising from the blue mountain in the distance. It would be a hot day.
Seeing me at the window, Bull's-Eye came out from under the hedge, shook himself free of water, and looked up lazily, sadly, at me. He was our sheep dog and I named him Bull's-Eye because his eyes were speckled black and white, like canned sweets. He usually slept in the turf house, but last night he had stayed in the rabbit hole under the hedge. He always slept there to be on the watch-out when Dada was away. I need not ask, my father had not come home.
Just then Hickey called from downstairs. I was lifting my nightgown over my head, so I couldn't hear him at first.
"What? What are you saying?" I asked, coming out onto the landing with the satin bedspread draped around me.
"Good God, I'm hoarse from saying it." He beamed up at me, and asked, "Do you want a white or a brown egg for your breakfast?"
"Ask me nicely, Hickey, and call me dotey."
"Dotey. Ducky. Darling. Honeybunch, do you want a white or a brown egg for your breakfast?"
"A brown one, Hickey."
"I have a gorgeous little pullet's egg here for you," he said as he went back to the kitchen. He banged the door. Mama could never train him to close doors gently. He was our workman and I loved him. To prove it, I said so aloud to the Blessed Virgin, who was looking at me icily from a gilt frame.
"I love Hickey," I said. She said nothing. It surprised me that she didn't talk more often. Once, she had spoken to me, and what she said was very private. It happened when I got out of bed in the middle of the night to say an aspiration. I got out of bed six or seven times every night as an act of penance. I was afraid of hell.
Yes, I love Hickey, I thought; but of course what I really meant was that I was fond of him. When I was seven or eight I used to say that I would marry him. I told everyone, including the catechism examiner, that we were going to live in the chicken run and that we would get free eggs, free milk, and vegetables from Mama. Cabbage was the only vegetable they planted. But now I talked less of marriage. For one thing, he never washed himself, except to splash rainwater on his face when he stooped in over the barrel in the evenings. His teeth were green, and last thing at night he did his water in a peach tin that he kept under his bed. Mama scolded him. She used to lie awake at night waiting for him to come home, waiting to hear him raise the window while he emptied the peach-tin contents onto the flag outside.
"He'll kill those shrubs under that window, sure as God," she used to say, and some nights when she was very angry she came downstairs in her nightgown and knocked on his door and asked him why didn't he do that sort of thing outside. But Hickey never answered her, he was too cunning.
I dressed quickly, and when I bent down to get my shoes I saw fluff and dust and loose feathers under the bed. I was too miserable to mop the room, so I pulled the covers up on my bed and came out quickly.
The landing was dark as usual. An ugly stained-glass window gave it a mournful look as if someone had just died in the house.
"This egg will be like a bullet," Hickey called.
"I'm coming," I said. I had to wash myself. The bathroom was cold, no one ever used it. An abandoned bathroom with a rust stain on the handbasin just under the cold tap, a perfectly new bar of pink soap, and a stiff white facecloth that looked as if it had been hanging in the frost all night.
I decided not to bother, so I just filled a bucket of water for the lavatory. The lavatory did not flush, and for months we had been expecting a man to come and fix it. I was ashamed when Baba, my school friend, went up there and said fatally, "Still out of order?" In our house things were either broken or not used at all. Mama had a new clippers and several new coils of rope in a wardrobe upstairs; she said they'd only get broken or stolen if she brought them down.
My father's room was directly opposite the bathroom. His old clothes were thrown across a chair. He wasn't in there, but I could hear his knees cracking. His knees always cracked when he got in and out of bed. Hickey called me once more.
Mama was sitting by the range, eating a piece of dry bread. Her blue eyes were small and sore. She hadn't slept. She was staring directly ahead at something only she could see, at fate and at the future. Hickey winked at me. He was eating three fried eggs and several slices of home-cured bacon. He dipped his bread into the runny egg yolk and then sucked it.
"Did you sleep?" I asked Mama.
"No. You had a sweet in your mouth and I was afraid you'd choke if you swallowed it whole, so I stayed awake just in case." We always kept sweets and bars of chocolate under the pillow and I had taken a fruit drop just before I fell asleep. Poor Mama, she was always a worrier. I suppose she lay there thinking of him, waiting for the sound of a motorcar to stop down the road, waiting for the sound of his feet coming through the wet grass, and for the noise of the gate hasp — waiting, and coughing. She always coughed when she lay down, so she kept old rags that served as handkerchiefs in a velvet purse that was tied to one of the posts of the brass bed.
Hickey topped my egg. It had gone hard, so he put little knobs of butter in to moisten it. It was a pullets egg that came just over the rim of the big china egg cup. It looked silly, the little egg in the big cup, but it tasted very good. The tea was cold.
"Can I bring Miss Moriarty lilac?" I asked Mama. I was ashamed of myself for taking advantage of her wretchedness to bring the teacher flowers, but I wanted very much to outdo Baba and become Miss Moriarty's pet.
"Yes, darling, bring anything you want," Mama said absently. I went over and put my arms around her neck and kissed her. She was the best mama in the world. I told her so, and she held me very close for a minute as if she would never let me go. I was everything in the world to her, everything.
"Old mammypalaver," Hickey said. I loosened my fingers, which had been locked on the nape of her soft white neck, and I drew away from her, shyly. Her mind was far away, and the hens were not yet fed. Some of them had come down from the yard and were picking at Bull's-Eye's food plate outside the back door. I could hear Bull's-Eye chasing them and the flap of their wings as they flew off, cackling violently.
"There's a play in the town hall, missus. You ought to go over," Hickey said.
"I ought." Her voice was a little sarcastic. Although she relied on Hickey for everything, she was sharp with him sometimes. She was thinking. Thinking where was he? Would he come home in an ambulance, or a hackney car, hired in Belfast three days ago and not paid for? Would he stumble up the stone steps at the back door waving a bottle of whiskey? Would he shout, struggle, kill her, or apologize? Would he fall in the hall door with some drunken fool and say: "Mother, meet my best friend, Harry. I've just given him the thirteen-acre meadow for the loveliest greyhound. ..." All this had happened to us so many times that it was foolish to expect that my father might come home sober. He had gone, three days before, with sixty pounds in his pocket to pay the rates.
"Salt, sweetheart," said Hickey, putting a pinch between his thumb and finger and sprinkling it onto my egg.
"No, Hickey, don't." I was doing without salt at that time. As an affectation. I thought it was very grown-up not to use salt or sugar.
"What will I do, mam?" Hickey asked, and took advantage of her listlessness to butter his bread generously on both sides. Not that Mama was stingy with food, but Hickey was getting so fat that he couldn't do his work.
"Go to the bog, I suppose," she said. "The turf is ready for footing and we mightn't get a fine day again."
"Maybe he shouldn't go so far away," I said. I liked Hickey to be around when Dada came home.
"He mightn't come for a month," she said. Her sighs would break your heart. Hickey took his cap off the window ledge and went off to let out the cows.
"I must feed the hens," Mama said, and she took a pot of meal out of the lower oven, where it had been simmering all night.
She was pounding the hens' food outside in the dairy, and I got my lunch ready for school. I shook my bottle of cod-liver oil and Parrish's food, so that she'd think I had taken it. Then I put it back on the dresser beside the row of Doulton plates. They were a wedding present, but we never used them in case they'd get broken. There were bills stuffed in behind them. Hundreds of bills. Bills never worried Dada, he just put them behind plates and forgot.
I came out to get the lilac. Standing on the stone step to look across the fields, I felt, as I always did, that rush of freedom and pleasure when I looked at all the various trees and the outer stone buildings set far away from the house, and at the fields very green and very peaceful. Outside the paling wire was a walnut tree, and under its shade there were bluebells, tall and intensely blue, a grotto of heaven-blue flowers among the limestone boulders. And my swing was swaying in the wind, and all the leaves on all the treetops were stirring lightly.
"Get yourself a little piece of cake and biscuits for your lunch," Mama said. Mama spoiled me, always giving me little dainties. She was mashing a bucket of meal and potatoes; her head was lowered and she was crying into the hen food.
"Ah, that's life, some work and others spend," she said as she went off toward the yard with the bucket. Some of the hens were perched on the rim of the bucket, picking. Her right shoulder sloped more than her left from carrying buckets. She was dragged down from heavy work, working to keep the place going, and at nighttime making lampshades and fire screens to make the house prettier.
A covey of wild geese flew overhead, screaming as they passed over the house and down past the elm grove. The elm grove was where the cows went to be cool in summertime and where the flies followed them. I often played shop there with pieces of broken china and cardboard boxes. Baba and I sat there and shared secrets, and once we took off our knickers in there and tickled one another. The greatest secret of all. Baba used to say she would tell, and every time she said that, I gave her a silk hankie or a new tartan ribbon or something.
"Stop moping, my dear little honeybunch," Hickey said as he got four buckets of milk ready for the calves.
"What do you think of, Hickey, when you're thinking?"
"Dolls. Nice purty little wife. Thinking is a pure cod," he said. The calves were bawling at the gate, and when he went to them each calf nuzzled its head into the bucket and drank greedily. The white-head with the huge violet eyes drank fastest, so that she could put her nose into the bucket beside her.
"She'll get indigestion," I remarked.
"Poor creature, 'tis a meat supper she ought to get."
"I'm going to be a nun when I grow up; that's what I was thinking."
"A nun you are in my eye. The Kerry Order — two heads on the one pillow." I felt a little disgusted and went around to pick the lilac. The cement flag at the side of the house was green and slippery. It was where the rain barrel sometimes overflowed and it was just under the window where Hickey emptied the contents of his peach tin every night.
My sandals got wet when I went over onto the grass.
"Pick your steps," Mama called, coming down from the yard with the empty bucket in one hand and some eggs in the other. Mama knew things before you told her.
The lilac was wet. Drops of water like overripe currants fell onto the grass as I broke off each branch. I came back carrying a foam of it like lumber in my arms.
"Don't, it's unlucky," she called, so I didn't go into the house.
She brought out a piece of newspaper and wrapped it around the stems to keep my dress from getting wet. She brought out my coat and gloves and hat.
"'Tis warm, I don't need them," I said. But she insisted gently, reminding me again that I had a bad chest. So I put on my coat and hat, got my school bag, a piece of cake, and a lemonade bottle of milk for my lunch.
In fear and trembling I set off for school. I might meet him on the way or else he might come home and kill Mama.
"Will you come to meet me?" I asked her.
"Yes, darling, soon as I tidy up after Hickey's dinner, I'll go over the road to meet you."
"For sure?" I said. There were tears in my eyes. I was always afraid that my mother would die while I was at school.
"Don't cry, love. Come on now, you better go. You have a nice little piece of cake for your lunch and I'll meet you." She straightened the cap on my head and kissed me three or four times. She stood on the flag to look after me. She was waving. In her brown dress she looked sad; the farther I went, the sadder she looked. Like a sparrow in the snow, brown and anxious and lonesome. It was hard to think that she got married one sunny morning in a lace dress and a floppy buttercup hat, and that her eyes were moist with pleasure when now they were watery with tears.
Hickey was driving the cows over to the far field, and I called out to him. He was walking in front of me, his trouser legs tucked into his thick wool socks, his cap turned around so that the peak was on the back of his head. He walked like a clown. I would know his walk anywhere.
"What bird is that?" I asked. There was a bird on the flowering horse-chestnut tree which seemed to be saying: "Listen here. Listen here."
"A blackbird," he replied.
"It's not a black bird. I can see it's a brown bird."
"All right, smartie. It's a brown bird. I have work to do, I don't go around asking birds their names, ages, hobbies, taste in snails, and so forth. Like these eejits who come over to Burren to look at flowers. Flowers no less. I'm a working man. I carry this place on my shoulders." It was true that Hickey did most of the work, but even at that, the place was going to ruin, the whole four hundred acres of it.
"Be off, you chit, or I'll give you a smack on your bottom."
"How dare you, Hickey." I was fourteen and I didn't think he should make so free with me.
"Givvus a birdie," he said, beaming at me with his soft, gray, very large eyes. I ran off, shrugging my shoulders. A birdie was his private name for a kiss. I hadn't kissed him for two years, not since the day Mama gave me the fudge and dared me to kiss him ten times. Dada was in hospital that day recovering from one of his drinking sprees and it was one of the few times I saw Mama happy. It was only for the few weeks immediately after his drinking that she could relax, before it was time to worry again about the next bout. She was sitting on the step of the back door, and I was holding a skein of yarn while she wound it into a ball. Hickey came home from the fair and told her the price he got for a heifer, and then she dared me to kiss him ten times for the piece of fudge.
I came down the lawn hurriedly, terrified that Dada would appear any minute.
They called it a lawn because it had been a lawn in the old days when the big house was standing, but the Tans burned the big house and my father, unlike his forebears, had no pride in land, and gradually the place went to ruin.
I crossed over the briary part at the lower end of the field. It led toward the wicker gate.
Excerpted from "The Country Girls"
Copyright © 1986 Edna O'Brien.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“It’s a difficult trip, this coming of age.... O’Brien tells it with love and outrage, compassion and contempt.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Astonishing! Edna O’Brien is supremely talented.”
“A TREASURE . . . POWERFUL. . . INTELLIGENT. . . IRONIC.”
—New York Times Book Review
“HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. . . . O’Brien’s particular appeal is that she can be tender yet merciless, romantic yet grittily sexual. She resides admirably where quality and popular writing intersect.”
“A UNIVERSAL STORY. . . . The spirit of youth, the search for love and the despair from disappointments come through clearly. . . . O’Brien’s sensitivity reaches into the very depths of these young
“MAGNIFICENT, EXUBERANT. . . as vivid as autobiography. . . rich, perfect. . . a strange brew of ecstatic abandon and morning-after sorrow.”
—The Village Voice
“MAGICAL. . . two of the most wonderful heroines in modern fiction. . . impulsively romantic as it is resigned and wise.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer